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Welcome to the latest in the Hell World series of "a bunch of writers or musicians I admire write about one of my favorite bands." You may have missed previous editions where we talked about The Cure, Elliott Smith, R.E.M., and Weezer.
I've shared all of those a number of times already, but I can't say enough what a joy it was to have such an amazing collections of people, including members of PUP, Thursday, Pool Kids, Into it. Over it., Murder by Death, and Stay Inside, as well as writers like Dave Holmes, Sasha Frere-Jones, Mike Isaac, Isaac Fitzgerald, Patton Oswalt, Maura Johnston, Philip Sherburne, Larry Fitzmaurice, Rax King, Josh Gondelman, Dan Ozzi, Scott Heisel, Jeb Lund, Jeremy Gordon, Parker Molloy, Annie Zaleski, Leor Galil, Ed Zitron, Jeremy D. Larson, S.I. Rosenbaum, Sean T. Collins, and many others write with such love and passion about some of their favorite songs.
Not to mention the great cast we have for this one.
Today we're going to read a lot about the late Jason Molina a songwriter who is simultaneously regarded as one of the best of his generation – if not all time – and is somehow still woefully under-appreciated.
As usual everyone does their format a little differently because who cares. Also I gave myself more than five picks because there are no rules.
Here's the playlist on Spotify (sorry as always).
One thing I love most about Jason and his music is how they both evolved out in the open. The trope of the teen or pop idol turned artiste is well documented, as is the inevitability of a legacy artist making a creative hairpin turn (Metal Machine Music et al). But Jason’s public evolution mirrors something more honest and universal – something I’ve observed in myself, and my friends and peers who came of age in the Midwest underground. There is this thing that happens when you’re very young, creatively malnourished and living in a widespot off the highway. When you finally find your people, you want nothing more than to be immersed in the collective “we” of that scene, to run sharply athwart your town’s conformity and cultural blindspots. The mixtape of obscurities, blue hair-dye, skateboard-wielding of it all. As you age, however, those Heartland, Southern and working-class cultural signifiers — their bare profundity and evident timelessness — become a badge of honor. This is particularly true as you find yourself in monied company at work, school, or in a new city. For me, this began with a John Prine awakening in my late teens. For Jason, it was when his regional comportment — his connections to Ohio, West Virginia, Chicago and the American Songbook more broadly — became the leitmotif of his art. There is something deeply relatable about a tenor guitar-brandishing misfit morphing into an Americana icon; the punk who comes to find his home a wonder. There are so many Molina songs to love, but here I’ve chosen five favorites that illustrate this well-tread path.
Love and Work
Jason really lets his vocals rip throughout Axxess & Ace, and especially here. Love and Work is Molina in a nutshell, the two things he really lived for. This song is a de facto mission statement. “Work” is key to understanding Jason’s view of himself and his music. It was art, but more than that, it was his beloved labor.
Steve Albini’s Blues
An incredible song aside, it illustrates a few things that were deeply important to Jason: collaborating with, elevating, amplifying his friends, and doing the same for the figures, locations and images of the Chicago region he held dear.
Just Be Simple
It’s inevitable that someone here will choose I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost (also the name of my book), so I’ve chosen Just Be Simple. It’s an odd edict coming from someone who was anything but. Aside from being a brilliant songwriter and beautiful singer, Jason was multitudinous, confounding and labyrinthine, and I’ve always thought of this song as the songwriter singing to himself. It’s a sort of wish.
“Why put a new address on the same old loneliness” is also one of the best lyrics that has ever been written, something that rings of classic country.
Hard To Love A Man
I love this song because it’s a rare example of a man writing and singing from a woman’s perspective in an empathetic and convincing way. (John Prine and Tom Petty are two of other modern American songwriters to have done this well, in case you’re not already sold on Jason’s genius.) He’s also writing about his own failures, which is incredibly profound, devastating and potent. Lastly, his new band at the time, Magnolia Electric Co., does an incredible job in these sessions. They were all but brand new to Jason, and the performances are so natural and poignant given the very limited amount of time they had to rehearse with him.
Not to be confused with Northstar Blues, this song is one of my favorites by Molina, full stop. It’s beautiful, devastating and classic in Molina’s open reckoning with himself. His voice is velveteen, and the sound of this recording is the sound of a band at the height of its roots-infused powers.
Erin Osmon is a music journalist, author and instructor at the University of Southern California. Her biography of Jason Molina, Riding with the Ghost, was published in paperback in 2018.
I started listening to Jason Molina when I was young enough that the price of every CD was coming out of my allowance, and I associate his music with the obsession and reverence that type of consumption demands. I was a soda-addled teen, prone to cycling among radio stations the second I heard a commercial or a song I didn't like. But the sheer cost of any CD pushed me to find some patience and get through every song on every listen. I wanted to find something to love about even the long and slow ones. No skips! It’s funny to think of that time now —I already paid with my money, was I really obligated to pay with my attention as well? — but the compulsion did somehow turn me into a serious music person.
Some records I loved back then did challenge my tendency to treat listening like an act of exertion. I bought a copy of Magnolia Electric Co., most likely at my local Borders, and found it enrapturing, even though its songs were, by my standards at the time, long and slow. Having listened to it probably hundreds of times in the two decades since, I am still surprised by how much more I keep finding in it, and how listening to it again always sends me back into Molina’s landscapes of wisteria and magnolia, a low hanging moon in the sky. If I had to sum up why I keep returning to his large body of work, I would say it’s because it has always rewarded what I have put into it.
5. Lightning Risked It All
Molina grew up in Lorain, Ohio, the same town as Toni Morrison — there’s an elementary school named after her there now. I’ve always thought it was a really odd coincidence, as I can’t think of two writers I admire who carried themselves more differently in the world. But they both had a fascination with ghosts, and I like this song because it reminds me of Beloved, blood and water and all that.
4. Almost Was Good Enough
For some reason, about a decade ago, I put lyrics from this one on my dating app profiles. Can’t really explain that or what I thought it was going to achieve, but I do stand by the sentiment. “C’mon, did you really believe that everyone makes it out? Almost no one makes it out.”
3. Pyramid Electric Co.
This is a recent favorite, but I think it illustrates his range. It feels like krautrock! There’s a story in here that feels relevant to me, the dark repetition of a mother telling her child that loneliness and death are inevitable.
2. Alone With The Owl
There are owls all over his work, but I think I like these ones the best. It’s got the basic structure of a lullaby or an old country song, but there’s also something stark and modern about it.
1. Farewell Transmission
A song that just keeps getting better the more you listen to it. That last “LISTEN” somehow always feels like he’s addressing you—yes, you, right there—directly.
Erin Vanderhoof is a staff writer at Vanity Fair.
I'm really bad at listing things, especially when it comes to Jason Molina songs. Mostly because there are so many I already like, but also because I'm always finding new ones I maybe overlooked or just hadn't heard before. I've wondered for a long time why his music hits me so hard, but it wasn't until about five or six years ago when I was sitting with a friend by a lake just north of Chicago and we had the classic rock radio station on that it made sense. I know the common comparisons tend to be Will Oldham and Neil Young, and I won't argue with either, but that night sitting by the lake, it was Against the Wind by Bob Seger out of a shitty little 1980s Sony radio. Before him, it felt like everything I'd ever read, heard, or seen about the Midwest was always presented with a longing for innocence. The neighborhood was better before the Lisbon sisters killed themselves in The Virgin Suicides or Ray Kinsella trying to recapture peace from before the 1960s drove a wedge between him and his father in Field of Dreams. Seger also sings a lot about how things were before, but he usually does it from the point of view of an older guy, past his prime, wishing he wasn't washed. I appreciate the honesty, but there's still Boomer nostalgia in his songs that I just can't connect with because I was born into Reagan's America.
Molina was born about eight years before me, and that's a big part of what draws me to his songs. He's not much older, but I feel there is some tremendous gap between the early 1970s and the start of the '80s. The last sparks of true American hope that we'd become this great and noble nation were extinguished by the time I was born, replaced by cynicism and greed. Molina stands out to me because he seemed to get that was how things worked, not simply another "jaded" Gen X musician hoping they could be the next Kurt or Stephen by stringing a bunch of nonsensical lyrics together; he was taking all those feelings of loss, sadness, and isolation, and turning them into some of the best songs I believe have come out of America during my lifetime. And the reason they're so good isn't simply because they're laced with that loss, sadness, and isolation, or even because he was truly an excellent songwriter. They're so good because, as hopeless as things might seem as you cruise down some dead middle-western street, there's always something more. The hope, and what I hear in his songs, is that you find it before it's too late.
1. The Big Game Is Every Night
To me, this is a true Rust Belt anthem. There's something about the word "quiet" in the first line of a song with all these football references that always got me. I don't know if you've ever experienced the before and after of a Midwestern high school football field after a big game, but there's something so eerie about it. At 7, the energy is at the highest it will be all year in town besides maybe the 4th of July carnival. By 11, it's a ghost town again.
2. Blue Chicago Moon
No shit, the first time I heard this song was sitting on one of those wooden back porches on the 5th floor of an apartment. If you know Chicago, then you know exactly the sort I'm talking about. A friend of mine had killed himself a few nights before and I was back in town for the funeral. My friend who I was staying with thought it would be a good idea to play the new Songs: Ohia album after we'd just drank way too much whiskey, probably a dozen beers, and had a joint or two. I don't think it hit me what we'd been listening to until the last song came on and the lyrics "Out of the ruins. Blood grown heavy from his past. His wings stripped by thunder. But those storms keep coming back" seemed way too on the nose given the circumstances. I grabbed the CD case and read the name of the song. I think if it was any other musician, I'd never be able to listen to that song again. But now I listen to this really sad song that I first heard after my friend committed suicide and it fills me with joy because that initial experience was so absurd to me. I feel like it was my dead friend fucking with me.
3. Just Be Simple
Magnolia Electric Co. is a perfect album, but those first two tracks are such scorchers. Then, all of a sudden, you get what I think is the most perfect country song out of all the 1990s-2000s indie "alt-country" (I hate that term, but it's apt here). It's Molina sort of doing that whole Midwestern before thing that I was talking about, but instead of saying things were so much better before, he tells us it sucked then like it sucks now, but it just seemed easier back then.
4. The Handing Down
I've come around to Josephine over the last few years. I like what he was doing when he switched over from Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Co. because there's that heavy element to it, something that came from liking Neil Young and Black Sabbath, I think. Some songs are a little more rock, others more country. Josephine is more of the latter, but this one has the best balance for me. It's got that slow burn like Farewell Transmission, but then it kicks up slightly. I always hoped I'd see a show where he just did songs like this, sort of one after another without much stopping.
5. The Body Burned Away
Ghost Tropic is such a weird album. I honestly hated it when I first heard it around 2001 or so, but I was an idiot then. I'm not so great now, but I know the album is a stunner. But the one track I've always loved is The Body Burned Away. It reminds me of the score Bobby Beausoleil did for Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising or like it could be used in Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, and the lyrics remind me of Allen Ginsberg. I don't actually know much about Jason Molina as a person, what he read or believed in, but a lot of the lyrics and themes in his songs always hit me as being informed by a belief in something bigger than us. This one in particular always made me think maybe he read a little bit about Buddhism.
Jason Diamond is a writer living in Brooklyn. He mostly writes for GQ and New York magazine these days. He also writes a newsletter called The Melt and has given up caring about social media save for his Instagram.
10. Didn’t It Rain
9. Coxcomb Red
8. Lonesome Valley
7. Blue Factory Flame
6. Almost Was Good Enough
5. Hold On Magnolia
4. Ring the Bell
3. I've Been Riding with the Ghost
1. Farewell Transmission
It goes without saying that picking my favorite songs for any of the acts we’ve covered in this series so far has been difficult because why wouldn’t it be. Of course you pick bands that are almost universally beloved for the breadth of their catalog.
How fun would it be to talk about your favorite… I don’t know… Bloc Party songs for example. (Sorry to Bloc Party who made a gorgeous and perfect and era-defining record but you know what I mean.)
But choosing from Jason Molina’s oeuvre (sorry I used the word oeuvre) is especially hard for me. Not only because he was extraordinarily prolific for a man who didn’t darken a single day on the tumbling side of forty but also because compared to Elliott Smith and R.E.M and so on he is a relatively recent obsession of mine. Yes I was floored by the Magnolia Electric Co. the record when it came out like every other young and sad and would-be literary person who heard it but for a long time I had set his music aside as a sort of sub-basement of sadness that I didn’t want to go wandering down into.
Afraid the flashlight might go out if you understand me.
Or maybe I thought of it like an emergency ax in the glass thing on the wall in case of a fire.
One of those hammers you keep in your glove box in case your car goes into the river.
So I didn’t fully dig into him until four or five years ago. Not until I became an actual alcoholic I guess. The timing on that lines up pretty good.
It feels like a set up.
Sorry the point was I had my tidy little list all planned out and then I was doing some due diligence bonus listening and I heard Ring the Bell off of 2002’s Didn’t It Rain like it was the first time I ever heard it and all of a sudden it was vying for my top five.
Asserting its right to be acknowledged.
To be remembered.
Now hold on though before we downshift to miserable here I want to point out how much the opening lines remind me of another sainted midwestern artist. It's a Tim Robinson line I swear to god.
“Help does not just walk up to you.
I could have told you that.
I'm not an idiot.
I could have told you that.”
I also think it’s funny that with a writer like Molina or Elliott Smith or whoever else we can all really dig deep into the meaning of the lyrics but it’s usually just a coin flip over whether it’s “this song is about a woman” or “this song is about alcohol.”
Everyone knows David Berman is the funny one but both of those guys are funnier than we give them credit for.
This song Ring the Bell just kind of got stuck in my craw today though.
“Why wouldn't I be trying to figure it out?
Everyone tells you that.
Everyone tells you not to quit.
I can't even see it to fight it.”
How an addict is hectored.
How an addict is defensive.
How an addict lies.
And from what I've read of the man Jason Molina loved to lie.
How an addict is blind.
The people bothering him are right obviously but he is too. He knows what you know about him far better than you know it.
On the one hand yes of course he is trying not to be the way that he is. Just like many of us are.
But the final line there.
“I can’t even see it to fight it.”
It calls to mind one of my other favorites of his which is I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost.
In Ring the Bell though he’s fighting an actual ghost. Punching wildly at an apparition that is invisible. Something that cannot be destroyed despite the fact that being destroyed in tandem is the only thing it wants. To take you down with it.
Real quick I was reminded of this bit from one of the earliest Hell Worlds which I have shared a bunch of times over the years but newly fits here. It was from back when Mac Miller died and was about when Kurt Cobain died also.
I want to say right now that I'm sorry that I have bought into the poignancy of the early death thing. A lot of us have.
They must have really meant it man.
Lived the life.
Ended dirty sure but...
All these sad and dead musical boys in their eternal dying. David Berman and Jason Molina and Elliott Smith and Justin Townes Earle and whoever else. Not just dead for eternity I mean which they also are but that they will eternally have had died.
Here’s the section from the old piece:
Miller struggled with addiction and depression throughout much of his young life and it was something he talked about openly. When you hear about someone who struggles with depression and addiction and talks about it openly it’s surprising when they die young but not that surprising. When you struggle with depression and addiction you think about being dead a lot which is something I can attest to because I’m addicted to everything. Also my best friend is an addict and depressed and tells me he wants to be dead a lot and I have tried a lot of different things to get him to stop thinking that but sometimes I think I’m maybe not the best person to present the case because I tell him things like Yes, bitch, I want to be dead too but you can’t do it. You have eternity to be dead so just wait like everyone else there is no point in rushing to be dead.
I’m embarrassed to be and have always been enchanted by the prematurely dead artist. I’m old enough to know that that’s bullshit.
But I am nonetheless at long last a sucker for it. A real fucking mark.
No one makes it out.
If you never got another Hell World email ever again after this one out of nowhere it’s not like you would be shocked right?
Hold on. Hold on a second. I’m fine and going to live to a relatively old age if I have my way so don’t be weird. But it’s not like you would say well no one saw that coming.
Just in case though no refunds on your Hell World subscription.
The thing about Molina’s music and his life as far as I know is that he was always “trying” just like I am trying and you are trying.
Just Be Simple:
“But I’m not looking for an easy way out.
This whole life it’s been about
try and try and try
and try and try and try
to be simple again."
"Real truth about it is no one gets it right.
Real truth about it is we're all supposed to try.…
We will try and know whatever we try
we will be gone but not forever.
Come on let's try and know whatever we try
we will be gone but not forever."
Almost Was Good Enough:
"It's been hard doing anything.
Winter's stuck around so long.
I kept trying anyhow and I'm still trying now.
Just to keep working, just to keep working."
I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost:
"While you've been busy crying about my past mistakes
I've been busy trying to make a change.
And now I made a change."
“Trying” is the truest and most overwhelming and all encompassing condition of the addict but it’s also a lie we’re all in on. The tension there is everything beautiful and ugly about Jason Molina the man and the music of Jason Molina.
One more thing before I shut the fuck up.
The spectral background vocals on I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost is what the Farewell Transmission sounded like.
Luke O'Neil runs the newsletter you are currently reading. His latest book A Creature Wanting Form came out a few months back.
The sky in Indianapolis before sunrise, right before the first beam of daylight, is a heavy blue. There’s no orange, no purple, only the same shade of blue it’ll be at 12 pm but much darker. This part of the world has a dimmer switch. The same goes for Molina’s work: It’s all blue, just different shades. Some folk music lends itself to singing with others on your porch, Molina’s music sounds like the hours after the party has ended. “The whole place is dark.”
Pour another drink and let the silence sink in or think better of it and go to sleep right away. Either way, you will wake up tomorrow. It will feel like your brain has raised up against itself in rebellion. You’ll slowly clean your home, putting the pieces back together the same way you do every day.
5. The Black Crow
The openers on Molina’s albums are auteurish in their ability to set a scene and immediately identify it as a Jason Molina album. The Black Crow off of The Lioness, could only be confused tonally for a Mogwai opener. Upon doing some research for this piece, I learned that Jason and his collaborators in Arab Strap might have used Mogwai’s equipment at Chem 19, unbeknownst to Mogwai. That rules.
4. The Body Burns Away
The way Jason Molina is spoken of in reviews and interviews, you’d think he died 50 years ago. Every release is “haunting.” All the photos of him are black and white or sepia-toned. He was a living ghost. The conversation around him deemed his life itself as his purgatory. Even if billed solo, Molina was accompanied by the Reaper on every release. This song is the best embodiment of that.
3. Ring The Bell (Trials And Errors version)
The original version of Ring The Bell could be on this list for Molina’s delivery of “I could have told you that, I’m not an idiot” alone. This version is on my list because the full band element of Magnolia Electric Co.’s work is often underrated and overlooked for Molina’s solo work. Molina was talented, of course, but his supporting cast shines so bright on this version of Ring The Bell. Trials and Errors is a great record, a worthy successor to Magnolia Electric Co. (the album) in so many ways. It’s unorthodox when live albums show up as first albums, especially with mostly-new music, but it’s a brilliant gamble that pays off here. This is the Molina record I listen to most now, and if Magnolia Electric Co. wasn’t such an iconic record itself, it’s the one I’d tell new fans to listen to.
2. The Big Game Is Every Night
Molina’s metaphor for eventual legacy as a game against rivals, friendly and unfriendly, external and internal, makes this a defining work of his discography. Molina’s work and life plays out as a nonstop series against his demons, played nightly for years. This song rightfully gets him out of the bleachers and puts him along all-time American greats on the field.
1. Farewell Transmission
One word: “Listen.”
Could it be anything else?
Jay Papandreas is a Denver-based writer who writes the Listen Up, Nerds Newsletter.
5. Ring the Bell
4. Just Be Simple
3. This House
2. Farewell Transmission
1. Hold On Magnolia
When I was a teenager I didn’t know anyone who wanted to be in a band with me so I started playing folk punk. I became friends with a folk punk duo, Dan and Justin, who played under the name Trunks and Tales and lived about a half-hour outside of Philly, with Justin’s now-wife Lois. Dan recorded my EP there, and at some point I played a show with them in central PA and they offered me the couch if I didn’t want to drive the whole way home to Delaware.
I was mostly unfamiliar with Jason Molina at that point, but Justin put on the documentary they made while recording Josephine with Steve Albini and told me it was one of his favorites. The first song they’re shown playing is This House and the lyrics of that song just crush me.
“Here is the lone pine that named the west.
And the saddest bird in the wilderness
she laid no nest down.
Do I have to live this way
and be the builder of no house?”
I was shaken by his songwriting and his voice, as well as the concept of going to record an album and not really having anything finished until you get to the studio. I’ve watched that documentary probably a dozen times. (For years I couldn’t find this song, just a couple of live versions, but several years ago some hero uploaded it to YouTube and it has like 1,800 plays. I don’t know how it didn’t make it on the record.)
After that I got super into The Magnolia Electric Co record. Hold On Magnolia is the most lyrically and musically devastating song I’ve ever heard, and both that song and Farewell Transmission illustrate everything I love about Jason Molina’s music. His songs are just beautiful. His voice floats above valleys and peaks of sound; at certain moments he sounds like an actual ghost. This is probably the first time I consciously realized songs could feel raw and powerful without being intentionally loud.
I never got to see Molina live but several years ago his bandmates did a show called Songs: Molina in Durham, with MC Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) and Skylar Gudasz singing. It was one of the most emotional shows I’ve ever witnessed and a reminder of the lasting impact his music has had. Luckily it feels like his influence grows more every year.
Paul Blest is a journalist, writer, and musician based in Raleigh, North Carolina. He plays in Long Relief.
Hold on Magnolia
Jason Molina is alive when Farewell Transmission first shakes me up but he’s dead when his music finds me for real. While finishing my BA I lose my apartment and a few weeks later my younger brother kills himself. Hold on magnolia to that great highway moon. A few car wrecks, pregnancy, abortion, and I drink whatever, fuck whoever, no one has to be that strong, try so hard to understand Death that I practically clutch at her robes. But if you’re stubborn like me I know what you’re trying to be. In my childhood home I wash dishes while my father watches TV in the dark. I wonder if accepting the inevitability of Death is easier than accepting the inevitability of life. Hold on magnolia to the thunder and the rain.
No Limit On the Words
A nice, attractive guy takes me on a date to see my future husband’s band, on tour from Seattle. My husband says What’s your story? and I give him everything, put no limits on the words. Molina sings unease easily but we are helpless and bewildered, talking through set after set. I listen to Ghost Tropic, per his suggestion, on a long cold drive. I want to weep at Molina’s voice, at the pain it rips from my locked body. Simply to live, that is my plan. Bare Autumn. Everything is dying while birds screech and Molina trembles. I will say nothing. This mourning dove gets it: surrender feels like freedom, suffering like ecstasy. Simply to live, that was my plan.
Didn’t It Rain
My husband returns to town for one week. We’re inseparable, burning. What about us when we’re down here in it? He says What if this is real? I don’t know about reality, only being alive. If it’s the light of truth, if they think you got it, they’re gonna beat it out of you. And how life extinguishes, through work and debt, whatever all else there is. Molina understands all that ever happens to be momentary, a flickering candle, or at least that’s how I make sense of this parting, driving my husband to the airport. Lucky to have held him at all. But if you do see that golden light that it shines in its fiery eye, go on and catch it while you can. Some never get it. Never sing. Never have a brother. Some kill themselves quickly, some slowly. This is real, I tell him (Let’s bring it back, sing one more).
Blue Factory Flame
I drive to Seattle to see my husband for one night, brakes frozen in the red snow beneath the Rainier brewery’s glowing backwards R. A post-rock aural crypt, the hollow spaces where Molina’s voice and guitar slash and leave marks. When I die put my bones in an empty street to remind me how it used to be. So many of his recordings are live, the way all recordings should be, I argue to my husband. I like it rough, earlier stuff, belting into a tin can. But we’re far apart, buried in husks on opposite ends of the coast. My hometown is a sinking landfill and I go back empty, I am paralyzed by the emptiness, knowing now how fully I can be filled.
Spanish Moon Fall and Rise
Some months later I sit in a camper that belongs to William Schaff, whose work I’ve loved since my teens, who created the Magnolia Electric Co. cover art. He’s wearing a shirt that says Jason Molina, painting over a picture of my dead brother, even like your loss, sadder than every sorrow, playing Molina through quiet speakers. Even like the night at the edge of the world he shares his whiskey. When Molina’s voice falls I fall with it. There’s still farther to fall. I think of my husband. Years from now we’re in motion, driving, together. I leave the road with the ghost of the road. We are a live room, bird cries, mystic twang of an electric guitar, indelible voice of a man who is always dying, always alive. Two wanderers eyes, two eyes.
Lauren Lavín is a writer and musician with work in King Ludd’s Rag, Farewell Transmission, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere. She sings and plays guitar with Nesting, whose debut record Drag All the Lights Inside (featuring art by Will Schaff) is out now via Chain Letter Collective.
There’s a moment stuck in time in my memory. It starts like this: a moon high in the sky, clouds drift past and obscure it from the view in my first off-campus apartment in college. It’s a Friday night and my roommates were out somewhere. I can’t recall. We lived across the street from a cliff ledge in Sunderland, Massachusetts and all attended UMass a town away. I didn’t have a car and didn’t much feel like going out.
Instead, I sat on the dingy and dirty futon in our living room listening to Jason Molina. It was the kind of night that Molina sang about often: dark, empty and filled with ghosts. On the living room wall were a pair of prints of two of Molina’s Songs: Ohia albums that my roommate Brian had framed.
I put on Molina’s solo album Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go, on my iPod (remember those?) and put some earbuds in. I pulled a blanket over my lap and closed my eyes. The floor lamp in the corner gave the room a subtle yellow glow. It never was bright enough for that room. The static and then the guitar come in. Is that feet shuffling or the chair? A piano enters. And then Molina’s warbling voice plays through the headphones and into my ears. It’s Easier Now, plays. A perfect opening song to what I think is one of the greatest solo records ever recorded with an opening verse that should be framed in a museum.
“Behind these eyes a desert spirit,
Sea serpent heart inside a sunken ship.
I finally got it
All parts wrong
I didn’t know how long it would take to do it.”
The creaking of the chair under him makes it feel like he’s sitting next to you. Then the guitar squeaks and you can hear his fingers sliding, adjusting on the strings. It’s as intimate of a record as anyone has made. When listening to it, it seems like it was written and recorded only for you and Molina. No one else.
The moment stuck. The song ingrained in me forever. That’s what Molina did. He sang about ghosts and owls and the supernatural, but what makes his songs so poignant is that his songs lives in your memory in a way that makes them mystical. I’ve tried to write about this song and this album hundreds of times and failed with each attempt.
A month or so before that night, I saw Molina perform at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton. The former bohemian cafe turned music hall. The lights inside barely lit the place, unless you were unlucky enough to sit in a booth near the rear of the venue with a light fixture on the wall beaming down, as I was. It was October 2008 and I went with two of my roommates, who had introduced me to Molina’s music. Brian owned the framed prints. He had the Sojourner box set in all its glory and he had been assigned to cover Molina’s show for our college newspaper.
“Resembling the battered denim jacket and dusty leather hat that he adorned, Jason Molina’s lyrics exposed a traveled and well-worn man,” Brian wrote in his lede. “Molina is constantly running from his ghosts while searching for silver linings. He is always in motion and never stagnant.”
There was no opener that I remember and Molina and Magnolia Electric Co. closed the night with Farewell Transmission. We were out before 10 p.m. The dark of Northampton lingered over us. I’m sure the moon was out. I’m sure the owls were prowling the evening sky over Route 116. Molina hasn’t left me since.
Hard to Love a Man
There’s something about the guitars in this song that fit Molina’s voice perfectly. The winding nature maybe? The simple drumbeat that lets them shine? Molina is at his best when he steps outside himself to write a song about himself from someone else’s view. And then there’s Jennie Benford’s backup vocals, which adds another layer of depth to the song.
Alone with the Owl
All Molina needs is guitar and some static. His voice breaks you. Here, his voice echoes and stretches far into the deepest reaches of my brain. And then there’s the perfect opening line: “Alone with the owls howling pain, pain, pain.”
Hold On Magnolia
A seven-minute plus song that could be longer and I’d never notice. I actually had never thought about how long this song was until working on this because it lives and breathes as a movement instead of a standard rock song.
Didn’t It Rain
I’m finding that I think Molina’s at his best when he’s winding his way through a song, which is pretty much how he recorded. The impromptu nature, the subtle missteps, the intimate nature of his voice cradling you at first only to throw you overboard with a big push somewhere in there. Finally, the lyrics. The words speak to something more than what’s there at first listen.
Sometimes you want Molina to let go a bit and let the rest of Magnolia Electric Co. rip and Lonesome Valley is the perfect melding of the two sides to Molina’s music – it’s poignant and yet it’s still a song written by people who enjoy the music they’re making. I can imagine the session when listening to this song and how they’re riffing on each other and feeling out the notes Molina gave them right before the time came to track it.
Kevin Koczwara is a writer in beautiful Worcester, Massachusetts. Read his work here.
Austin L. Ray
I’m not fit to write about Jason Molina. Typing these words feels fraudulent. Nevermind that I’ve made a comfortable living as a writer for 20 years. This guy was an actual writer, the type that made it seem effortless (if also more than a bit harrowing), dropping line after iconic line across countless songs under various monikers. When Luke asked me to do this, my gut said no. What could I possibly add to his legacy at this point?
I don’t know, man.
What I do know is this: [extremely old and washed person voice] I read the Pitchfork review of Magnolia Electric Co. in March of 2003 and something about that review – I considered myself a music writer at the time, so these sorts of things really appealed to me; still do, sometimes – compelled me to march right out of my busted little college apartment in Columbia, Missouri, head over to Streetside Records and purchase the album on compact disc.
In the 21 years since, I’ve probably listened to it more than any other collection of recorded music. It led me to loads of his other music, of course, but also down various musical avenues of other artists. I even decided recently that I’m going to get a tattoo of the owl from the cover. Molina feels, to me, less like someone who sometimes sings on the speakers in my home or car, and more like an occasional acquaintance who has shaped how I feel and think about the world. It’s weird and maybe a little embarrassing to put it that way, but that’s what music will do to you sometimes.
My friend Max Blau wrote an incredible 2014 piece for the Chicago Reader which includes the following quote from former Molina bandmate Max Winter that is more profound and articulate than I could ever say about the man and his music, so here you go:
“Jason was large and multitudinous: commensurately inspiring and frustrating, goofy and gloomy, spontaneous and studied, generous and self-absorbed, loyal and flaky, wise and naive, trusting and paranoid, outgoing and reserved, honest and totally full of shit, and every blessed and profane thing in between. And it’s all there in his music.”
5. Everything Should Try Again
“Ever been tired?
Ever been a little sick?
Ever tried working through it?”
My favorite Molina songs have big, ridiculous bands behind them, a whole cast of characters in the studio, encouraged to take the source material and run with it in beautiful directions. But it’s worth remembering that at the heart of every one of these compositions is a man, his voice, and an acoustic guitar. For this one, he sticks to those three elements to absolutely devastating results.
4. Didn’t It Rain
“If they think you got it, they're gonna beat it out of you.
Through work and debt, whatever all else there is.
You gotta watch your own back.”
Molina as working class hero? Or maybe an actual superhero, here to help when you need it most? This bleak-but-powerful slow burn that borrows its title from a much-recorded gospel standard could be both or neither. But it slowly unfurls into something equal parts life-affirming and haunting, a piece of art that can soothe or ruin me depending on the day.
3. The Dark Don’t Hide It
“You said you only wanted friends
for long enough to get rid of them.
You found the kind you knew would only kill ya
so you surrounded yourself with them.”
In 2005, when What Comes After the Blues – and this, its pop-perfect opener – dropped, Magnolia Electric Co.’s label Secretly Canadian “poured substantial resources” into making the band as big as it could be. Molina and his crew had a chance few bands do, and could’ve ridden it to unknown heights on the festival circuit and beyond had he not recoiled from the spotlight.
“It wasn’t a fear of failure, but a fear of success,” one of his bandmates said of that time. “He resisted getting a manager. We self-managed to the detriment of getting bigger.”
Self-sabotage or not, it’s a real shame, because I listen to this song and I hear a whole generation of musicians who followed Molina. I hear Wednesday. I imagine seeing those two bands on the same bill and it making my whole goddamn year. Ugh.
2. Just Be Simple
“And everything you hated me for
Honey, there was so much more.
I just didn't get busted.”
Ah, yes, the hit single from the soundtrack to the movie Oh, Great, Austin’s Crying Again. When that weeping lap steel hits I’m like a dog waiting for a treat. I stop what I’m doing, I sit at attention, I sigh heavily, I look forward to the next four minutes.
It’s a tricky song, one that tells you to “be simple” and actually sounds quite simple, but it’s all a facade. Have you ever listened to any covers of this song? There are a bunch of them, some by pretty bigtime, accomplished songwriters, indie darlings and such, the type of folks who regularly play much larger venues than Molina ever made it to. But here’s the thing: almost all of them sound sterile, boring, and unnecessary. Dude was truly one of a kind.
1. Farewell Transmission
“Real truth about it is
no one gets it right.
Real truth about it is
we're all supposed to try.”
When I was thinking about what songs I wanted to list here and chatting about it with some friends online, one of them said that this song “is the easy answer, but it's easy for a reason.” No lies detected. It’s not just the best Molina song. I’ll go on record and say something preposterous right now like “it’s one of the 25 best songs of all time.” Go ahead and quote me on that, who cares.
Since I have a feeling a lot of folks in this piece are going to say a lot of really smart and emotional shit about this song, I’ll just key in on one tiny moment. You know at the end where he keeps saying “listen” (of course you do)? Well, check out this Molina quote from 2011:
“I noticed that at one point when it was a little too loud or a little too soft [Steve Albini] came and opened a door to make it work, because it was just an ambient recording. When you hear that song kick off everybody knows it, and what’s so disturbing to me is the way that I ended it is I was dictating to the band and Steve – I go ‘Listen. Listen. Listen.'”
I love that. For many, that ending is such a legendary, mysterious, iconic thing, suffused with all the meaning in the world that you could possibly give it. But the truth was so much simpler – it was just straightforward communication from a band leader to his crew. A gentle reminder of potential and possibility and resourcefulness, an optimistic indication that maybe you really can do anything if you put your mind to it. Listen.
Austin L. Ray is a writer, a dad, and the creator of How I'd Fix Atlanta.
5. It Must Be Raining There Forever
I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about the way Molina writes about loneliness that makes it so beautiful, and I think part is that he doesn’t try to dress it up as something extravagant or romantic, but because he accepts it for what it is. Sometimes the most comforting thing is not for someone to look past the darkness inside of you, but to face it head on, to recognize and respect it, to see your despair and through it, to see you.
4. The Big Game Is Every Night
It’s the perfect epilogue (or prologue, considering the cyclical nature of creation, death, and Magnolia Electric Co.). Of course an album that starts and finishes with the world ending should show us the world’s rebirth as a B-side. And of course, the evolution of this reborn world should also track the evolution of the musical and literary lineage that Molina carries on. And of course, it all plays out on a cosmic, time-traveling baseball diamond. From the creeping instrumental intro to the groaning strings and off-in-the-distance wails that play out the song’s 9-minute run, it always feels like it’s lurching towards something. Consistent throughout, but inexplicably transformed by the end. “So good it’s scary.” Yeah, it is.
3. I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost
The backing vocals on this one are what do it for me. Or rather, the way the backing vocalists prop up Molina’s lead and give the song movement. Every time I listen to it I can’t help but picture Molina riding a horse through a dark forest in a thunderstorm, lantern in hand, while ghosts sing around him in the trees – the whole thing feels very Over The Garden Wall. I think I put it on a Halloween playlist once. It’s one that I listen to a lot in the fall and early winter, going for walks and being a little creeped out by how cold and loud the wind is and how dark the sky gets in the early evening – even when I’m expecting it – and staying out anyway. On those walks I’m reminded of how alone I am. It’s a bit scary, but also freeing and beautiful. I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost feels the same way.
2. Being In Love
I’m a sucker for a song that can pass as a love song or a song about heartbreak depending on how you listen to it. I remember having a conversation about a different song of this sort with my boyfriend early in our relationship – as in, less than a week of being together. What he heard as a song about a relationship beginning, I heard as a song about a relationship ending (I tried not to see it as a bad omen on my part).
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this song is about the precarity of love. The opening lines sum it up so perfectly: “Being in love means you are completely broken, then put back together, the one piece that was yours…” There’s this fear at the heart of it all, but also a very pure sense of hopefulness and joy.
The line that gets me the most is “I have plans to be with you and for the first time it’s working.” I think back to when he and I first got together, deciding to try a long distance relationship despite having never even been in the same time zone as one another. I think about the hours-long phone calls, the first plane tickets purchased, the decision to wait it out long enough to see what would happen, because even though we didn’t really know what we were doing, we knew that it was working. The simplicity of Molina’s reasoning is so striking. That one line takes all these grand statements about love and the potential dangers that come with it and boils them down to something so straightforward; love is a risk but it’s also a given.
1. Farewell Transmission
Of course this is number one. Farewell Transmission is one of the greatest songs of all time, and the fact that it exists in this particular recorded form is nothing short of miraculous. The sheer instinct, synchronicity, and unspoken connection required from everyone in the room – none of them could have known when they’d walked into Electrical Audio that day that something serendipitous would happen that would enable them to record the album’s opening track in a single perfect take. If any song is deserving of such a mythic origin story, it’s this one. Over the course of Farewell Transmission the world starts and ends over a series of accidents – some man-made, some beyond mortal control. (All the more fitting for a song accidentally recorded in just one take). It’s as though Jason Molina himself foretold his own band’s miracle: “All the great set up hearts / all at once start to beat.”
Almost a year ago, I wrote about how I couldn’t stop listening to Farewell Transmission while watching footage of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio – a small town not far from Molina’s hometown of Lorain – which polluted the area’s air and water supply with remnants of burnt vinyl chloride. Some accidents, like this one, can hardly be called accidents at all. They’re acts of targeted carelessness, decisions that disregard humanity for the sake of profit and let people serve as collateral damage, not caring who falls victim to the fossil fires and fossil blood.
Farewell Transmission shows human capacities for lasting change laid bare against a backdrop of complete darkness. Anything is possible – a statement that’s as inspiring as it is horrifying and vice versa. “We will be gone but not forever.” We can create things that will outlive us – whether that’s a timelessly beautiful song about the human condition or horrific atrocities whose long-term consequences are still unknown.
With everything we do, whether we know it or not, we’re all grasping for our own little bits of immortality, little pinpricks of light shining through the long dark blues. As far as shouts into the void go, Farewell Transmission is one whose echo will hopefully not get lost to the black hole oblivion anytime soon. Through the static and distance, it goes on: listen.
Cross The Road, Molina
I love the way he describes how the moon “swings like a blade,” and I love the way he sings the words “swing like a blade” as though his voice is doing that exact thing. I also love a song where the singer says their own name (this one only includes it in the title, but it’s close enough).
Old Black Hen
Including this feels a bit like cheating because Molina doesn’t sing it. Sometimes I wonder how it would sound if he did, but Lawrence Peters’ voice is so perfectly matched to this somber little waltz that I don’t even mind. There’s this weird thing that happens where everyone commiserates so loudly and so communally that their sorrow starts to sound like a celebration.
Grace Robins-Somerville is a writer from Brooklyn, NY currently based in Wilmington, North Carolina. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work has appeared in The Alternative, Merry-Go-Round Magazine, Swim Into The Sound, Post Trash, and her music newsletter Our Band Could Be Your Wife.
It would be very easy to start this list with Farewell Transmission by Songs: Ohia, one of the greatest songs ever written by any human, but I won't.
That human is Jason Molina, who would have been 50 years old as of last week. That song, which has rightfully been studied at length, seems to be remembered as Molina's swan song, and I'm sure it will be written about by others.
Farewell Transmission is a perfect moment, recorded live on tape by Steve Albini, and it is, as the busboys where I bartend say, "a movie." It's a sonic milestone that was the culmination of a decade spent writing some of the most spare and brutal songs ever recorded.
Jason's music has always been around me. In 2000, my friends and I were obsessed with The Mountain Goats, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, David Berman, and Bright Eyes to varying degrees. The Songs: Ohia moniker was on my radar pretty early, and relative to those other artists, Jason's songs were the most actively hardened. Conor Oberst sang about heartbreak. Songs: Ohia sang about having your back broken by life.
I won't bore you with my life story, I'll just say that the music of Jason Molina is a secret language for the lost. It speaks to you in your darkest moments and he makes you feel things no other writer can. I encourage you to fill some of your lost moments with his music.
Here are five of my favorites, presented chronologically:
1. Lightning Risked It All
I am never far away from the music of Jason Molina. Just last week, I sent this song to a sound editor as an example of pacing for a scene in a podcast we are making that takes a dark turn. The strange, strangled pinch harmonics and oddly galloping pace feel like a cold, midwestern winter.
This is a singer unconcerned with the listener seeing his insides. A raw starting point for Jason's music, but indicative of a man who "deeply risked it all."
The first Jason Molina song I actively loved. The entire Lioness album is incredible, but the title track is where you first hear his version of a falsetto in the verses where he expresses a desire to "lick my blood off your paws." The repeating mantra of "you can't get here fast enough" is the big hook, but every word of this song is a spell unraveling.
3. Ring the Bell
This song was recorded in Philadelphia, and I will always associate it with gray skies, cheap rent, and seeing live music constantly. I knew Jason Molina's face well enough to recognize him outside a Chinese restaurant around the time this album came out.
In addition to seeing a lot of current bands like Songs: Ohia regularly, I was beginning a deep Neil Young love affair that continues to this day. There is a clear classic rock debt in the Songs: Ohia albums from this era but it's never too much. I hope that when lazy rock critics describe his music they will call Jason the "Neil Young of his time" because of songs like this.
4. I've Been Riding With the Ghost
This is the second song on the album Magnolia Electric Co., which is confusing because, after this, Molina changed the band's name from Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Co. I've speculated as to why he changed it but I can tell you after typing out Songs: Ohia a few times in this list, it is pretty clunky.
Regardless, the album begins with the timeless Farewell Transmission, and follows it up with this masterpiece. Almost a duet, but not quite, the titular "ghost" is the voice in the back of your head telling you everything is hopeless.
The spare opening lines are sung by a guy "trying to make a change." Looking back through the lens of Jason's struggles with alcoholism and mental health, it's hard not to hear the story of someone who is "not getting better, just getting behind." Musically, it's the remarkable backing vocals and Crazy Horse stomp that make this one. It's heartening to hear a man who has decided to make a change and sound like he means it.
It's impossible to sum up the Magnolia Electric Co. portion of Molina's catalog but Whip-Poor-Will is emblematic of his later work. It's a song you could hear around a campfire in 1888 or in a Baptist church tomorrow. Like all great hymns it is sung by a broken man, just barely hanging on:
“Now count every rhododendron in this cool mount of light.
I've made more mistakes than that just tonight.
So all of you folks in heaven not too busy ringing the bells
some of us down here aren't doing very well.
Some of us with our windows open in the Southern Cross Motel.”
"Whip-Poor-Will" is a rare moment of hope that happened to coincide with the beginning of the end for one of the greatest songwriters of my lifetime. I try not to think about where he ended up and try to imagine him in that cool mount of light, still waiting. "Sing it, brother. One more time."
These are songs meant to be rediscovered and revered. I hope you listen.
Daniel Ralston is a writer and bartender living in Los Angeles. He is currently at work on The Fake Zombies, a podcast based on his original story for Talkhouse.
5. Hot Black Silk
This was my introduction to Songs: Ohia and one of the first songs I pirated on Napster around 1999 or 2000 with dial-up internet. I grew up in the 90s going to basement punk rock shows and was trying to find new and different music. Hot Black Silk gave me that new relationship energy that you can get from finding the perfect song. I was obsessed. It took me years to remember and find it again after copyright infringement lawsuits shut Napster down. It’s still a bop. A romance rekindled.
4. Didn’t it Rain
It was 2002 and I had dropped out of college. I was working a dead-end job on a U.S. Air Force base in Germany and felt trapped. I was surrounded by military people that I didn’t have much in common with and felt so lonely. This was right after 9/11 and popular culture was just a godawful wasteland. All the women wore low-rise jeans and had spray tans. It was actually cool to trust the government. Songs: Ohia was something pure and soaring in the darkness.
“If it's the light of truth.
If they think you got it they're going to beat it out of you
with work and debt whatever all else there is.
You got to watch your own back.
Try to see the light of goodness burning down the track
Through the blinding rain through the swaying wires
if I see you struggle I will not turn my back.”
3. Almost Was Good Enough
Neil Young sang that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” but Jason Molina’s songs were all about trying to hang on, fight back the ghosts for one more day, and keep working, even if “no one makes it out.” How does someone drink themselves to death at 39? I think he stuck around for as long as could.
“It's been hard doing anything.
Winter's stuck around so long.
I kept trying anyhow and I'm still trying now.
Just to keep working, just to keep working.”
2. Be Simple
The lyrics have a dark humor, delivered with a sad resignation. “Why put a new address on the same old loneliness… And everything you hated me for, Honey, there was so much more.”
1. Farewell Transmission
I know, it’s everyone’s favorite, but that’s because it’s the best. It’s a magical thing, recorded live in one take, with whatever musicians happened to be around that day and with no rehearsal. There are flaws, but how else would you know it really happened? “I will try and know whatever I try, I will be gone but not forever.”
Brianna Bailey is an investigative reporter in Oklahoma and managing editor of the nonprofit newsroom The Frontier.
Most people know me as a “Britpop girl.” My record collection is dominated by bands ranging from the Manic Street Preachers to Marion, but despite this, I’ve maintained a love for alt-country. I grew up in the college town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee and while I rejected all things country in favor of various Britpop and goth bands, the American South still left its impact on me. So when I moved up to Boston to begin my freshman year at Emerson College, it was almost poetic that my first college boyfriend would introduce me to the works of Jason Molina. I’d fall more in love with Molina’s music than I ever did with said boyfriend. However I remain eternally grateful to that boyfriend, as he took me to see Magnolia Electric Co. at the Middle East Downstairs only a few weeks into the beginning of our freshman year (Shearwater was the opener). It’s a concert memory that I cherish.
Like so many other millennials, I graduated into a shit economy and eventually moved back home to my parents’ house in Murfreesboro. After six months, I secured a job in San Francisco and set out for the west coast. It was during my two year stint in San Francisco that Jason Molina died. I was devastated. This man had written what I considered to be some of the most gorgeous vocal melodies (second only to those written by the lads in Mansun, of course). And yet, he was such a tortured soul. Can beautiful melodies only come from broken people?
Jason Molina would have turned 50 on December 30, 2023. I always maintain that somewhere out there, Molina’s still singing to us through the static and distance, helping us uncover parts of ourselves that we never knew.
If there’s a subject Molina knew how to write best, it was heartbreak and longing. This is captured on so many of his tracks, but Lioness is my favorite example of this style of his writing. “You can’t get here fast enough.” Damn.
4. Hard to Love A Man
Some men are blessed with the ability to accurately write from a woman’s point of view, and Molina’s greatest example of this is Hard to Love A Man. Featuring dual vocals from both Molina and Jennie Benford, this haunting song best captures the feeling of waiting by the phone, wondering why he won’t call (or text!).
3. John Henry Split My Heart - Live in Lleida, Spain 2009
While the studio version of this song is an epic rivaling Farewell Transmission, this live version shot in the town of Lleida, Spain in 2009 showcases the incredible ability that Molina had to connect with other musicians. Watch the recording of this show, and you’ll wish you could have been up on that stage, part of that sonic magic. They hit it right out of the park.
2. Talk to Me Devil, Again
Molina knew about demons, and that’s probably what makes his music so powerful and relatable. Draped in the background of heavenly guitar melodies, this song is the perfect juxtaposition of danger and beauty. You know it’s (or they’re) not good for you, but goddammit Devil, talk to me again.
1. Farewell Transmission
I was living in San Francisco when I lost a dear family friend, Sean. Throat cancer took him away from his wife and young daughter way, way too soon. Both my family and Sean’s family were still back in Tennessee, so I put Farewell Transmission on repeat and played it all night long. It made me feel connected to my friend, through the static and distance.The song still makes me feel connected to my lost loved ones, and even Molina himself. I’ve long harbored a fantasy of assembling all of my musician friends and recording a cover of this song. It’s an epic that builds and takes the listener on a journey beyond our mortal world. By its end, you feel yourself part of that static and distance.
I don’t have any tattoos, but if I did, I’d get this lyric inked on my person: “The real truth about it is, no one gets it right. The real truth about it is, we’re all supposed to try.” Some would say that those lyrics are cynical and depressing. To me, they’ve been eternally comforting. None of us know what the fuck we’re doing, but each day we go through the motions. No one is alone in feeling like this. And ultimately, isn’t that what Molina did best during his short time on this planet? When we experience loneliness, his music is always there to reassure us that we’re only human.
Kayley Kravitz-Marotta is a Britpop DJ and an audio tech marketing professional, most recently joining the team at Sennheiser.
1. Farewell Transmission
Gonna cheat and just have this count for everything off of Magnolia Electric Co. Maybe the most perfectly bookended album of all time. Listening to Farewell Transmission for the first time was something really special. It made my skin buzz.
2. Nashville Moon
My ass has definitely cried over some bullshit while listing to this one. His work under Magnolia Electric Co. doesn’t get the same praise or recognition as what was released under Songs: Ohia, but he never stopped being good. We’re long overdue for a retrospective on Josephine.
3. Being In Love
I really love the slowcore-y sound on The Lioness. Real sense of intimacy to that album and this is my favorite one off it.
4. Alone With The Owl
Molina’s best songs sound like what a lump in the throat feels like. Pretty cool line from me, wow. I could do Pitchfork.
5. The Mission’s End
Eight Gates is more of a sketchbook than a proper album. The songs are very stripped down, in need of more resources to elevate them to their true potential. But The Mission’s End is just perfect the way it is. Maybe his final great song.
Nick Ciarelli is a writer and comedian living in New York.
I have memories of discovering Jason Molina’s music through the early 2000s blog scene in my first few years high school. Falling asleep in my childhood home listening to the spectral sounds of Didn’t It Rain or Ghost Tropic, not fully understanding what’s being played or said but recognizing that this strange man was speaking to me in some way. (Phil Elverum also fell into this era and this category for me, and took a few years longer to click.)
Actually becoming an adult and experiencing real pain and heartache and regret (and alcohol) obviously shifted how I viewed this music, and has since amplified some of the quietest, most alone moments that life might offer. A pre-dawn wait outside the Greyhound station, a prolonged stare out the window of a dark bedroom, a cold fetch with the dog in an empty park.
These moments have paired with seemingly straightforward phrases that somehow become devastating in the context of the arrangements as well as Molina’s story. “Some things do nothing but try."
“I was trying to sing the blues the way I find them.”
“Just be simple again.”
There is, of course, a deep, deep rabbit hole of incomprehensibly painful lyrics that I can list here but from where I sit at the moment, Molina’s magic was more in finding ways to draw beauty and devastation from mantras like the above along with his fixations on magnolias, moons, birds, blues, lights, roads, etc. that eventually became Molina Canon.
Of course, that could be optimistic of me. I could be, forgivably, trying to avoid the question: “How far am I from living my whole life only in the dark?”
Hold On Magnolia
“In my life, I have had my doubts, but tonight I think I’ve worked it out with all of them.”
This song has always been the pinnacle of Molina to me. Building, falling and looping around the same chord progression. A sliver of hope, however naive, at the end of an album full of severe strife and doubt. (Plus I’m just a sucker for waltzes.)
Blue Factory Flame
"When I die, put my bones in an empty street to remind me how it used to be.”
I can think of few instances of magic more impressive than Molina layering those fragile harmonies and that groove – one of the sole ones I can think of in his catalog – over the “paralyzed by the emptiness” refrain and a horde of other night-black lyrics.
The Big Game is Every Night
Just fucking big and weird and ominous, a combination I’m drawn to in almost any art form. Like a bigger-budget sequel to Cross the Road, Molina. A shame it has gone relatively unheard but also a fitting bastard stepchild of Magnolia Electric Co.
Didn’t It Rain
“No matter how dark the storm gets overhead, they say someone's watching from the calm at the edge. What about us when we're down here in it? We gotta watch our own backs”
This was the literal first for me, and still sums up the man’s power better than any, as well as his knack for a truly soul-piercing melody. (This may also have launched my decades-long obsession with the tremolo mandolin sound that I’m now weaving into my own songs.)
Leave the City
"It's true it was a hard time that I've come through, it’s made me thankful for the blues.”
The slightly more concise, conventional rock tunes in the back-half of his career tend to get less attention than the early era of sparse, lower-fi recordings but there are plenty of genuine gems, and few come together as beautifully as this one. The trumpet, the honky-tonk piano, the country guitar, the melody - a total one-of-a-kind.
Kyle Wall writes and records music as Wharfer, and lives in Philadelphia.