Losing Jason Molina of Songs:Ohia

By | March 21, 2013

I have been listening to the work of singer/songwriter Jason Molina since 1998, almost fifteen years, nearly all of his career (1996-2009, or -2012, depending on how you count). During those years, his words and music have accompanied my greatest joys and sorrows as few musicians’ have.

His loss at 39 from alcohol feels a little like losing an old friend.

I discovered Molina’s work by way of his second full-length record, Impala. There’s a flinty, strident quality to Molina’s voice in these early releases that would later become more plaintive and hesitant, to no less moving effect, but I still return most frequently to Impala and to the soaring anthems of The Lionness. All of Molina’s music has a rough-hewn quality, since much of it was produced in a single studio sitting: Molina was an impatient genius.

Molina could shift styles unpredictably from one record to the next, from the incredibly sparse and minimal Ghost Tropic to the country-tinged rock of the Magnolia Electric Company. In the end, there might be a Molina record for everyone. Personally, I’m not much for Ghost Tropic, but the also very bleak and minimal Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go I find gut-wrenching, particularly with the terrible hindsight of a life lost to alcohol.

Besides the compelling melodies, Molina was a brilliant lyricist, with a flair for the emotionally-charged paradox:

Under my wings go
All of my worries (“Advice to Aces”)

and ambiguity:

Certain looks
Sort out confused looks
Certain looks
Sport confused looks (“Tigress”)

or this ambiguous syntactic structure that the language itself seems to comment on:

There is no contest against the final day
will rise above us
either way
we’re either greeted by life or its reverse
then each day greeted by a fortune or its reverse (“Captain Badass”)

I often admired how Molina could use the music to mimic his conceits, like the musical “spark” of the discordant guitar notes in “Just a Spark”. How the lyrics could lead us from the frost to the dew, and from himself to us, in “Big Sewell Mountain”, ever so delicately gesturing to consolation (a proper and truly great elegy maintains just this kind of lightness of touch).

But however accomplished a poet Molina was, walking through the galleries of techniques and devices seems particularly trivial in the face of the loss. It’s a feeble gesture in hopes that a few more listeners might discover Molina’s work, and a way to remember some of the moments that helped make that work so dear to me.

He wept, or we weep:

Let me go let me go let me go
So I can wait behind