Jason Molina sang like he sensed the end was imminent. Ghosts lurked in his lyrics and in his fractured half-lit lament of a voice. There are certain things you can’t fake and the power of Molina’s music came from the feeling that this was a man who wouldn’t even have the first clue how to fake it. Even if he had survived the corrosion of alcoholism, he understood human fragility and futility. Jason Molina was haunted. These weren’t supernatural “Shining” specters, but the albatrosses of everyday existence. The binds between pain and his ability to create, addiction and absolution, the pain that comes from letting in the splinters of light needed for visibility. I never spoke to the man once, but these are the sort of things you can hear in the plaintive desperation of his songs.
Let’s backtrack. Jason Molina died on Saturday at 39 years old. Organ failure due to excess alcohol consumption. He drank himself to death. He was a songwriter who recorded for the Secretly Canadian label, mostly under the Magnolia Electric Company moniker. At some point in late 2011, his family revealed his affliction and asked for contributions to a medical fund for his recovery. Like most musicians, he had no health insurance. During the last year, he attempted to convalesce while working on a farm and he didn’t make it. He backslid. He died. And suddenly, I feel gutted about someone whose music I hadn’t listened to in a few years. There is a reason for that. It is a pure manifestation of pain. His songs were soliloquies to shadows, requiems to the ravaged. They are not fit for everyday consumption. They are quietly explosive — only fit for purges when you seek total bloodletting with no tourniquet.
Molina’s music occupied a rare strata. There is Neil Young and there is Elliott Smith and Gram Parsons, and a clutch of semi-anonymous country stragglers whose names are foreign to me. Then there is Molina who carried on the tradition to the gruesome end. Chunklet’s Harry Owings wrote that Molina “cashed out on Saturday night in Indianapolis with nothing but a cell phone in his pocket with only his grandmother’s number on it.”These are the details that stick with you. Smith stabbing himself (or being stabbed) in the heart. Gram Parsons, breath snuffed out, morphine in the blood, dead in Joshua Tree. Molina broke and possessing only ten numbers to his name. Aside from Molina, no musician other than Neil Young has captured the feeling of being forlorn but still functioning. I suppose he wasn’t functioning and that was the entire point. His songs radiated a doomed strength that you rarely see. Most songwriters saddled with intense depression slink into a sotto voce whine that veers on the insufferable. That’s why I loved Molina’s music. It never weeped or begged for your sympathy. It retreated into the shadows, offering damaging incantations about ghosts, devils, lonesome moons and lightning — the nocturnal afflictions of too many sips. It was his gift and his curse, his reserve was 80 proof and eventually it ran out.
I only wrote about Molina’s music once on this site. It was almost six years ago and you can read it here. The first sentence calls him the most underrated singer/songwriter in music and I still believe it today. His death means that there is finally punctuation, if only ellipses. It’s inevitable that his songs will absorb the posthumous adoration that they always deserved. The foreshadowing is obviously and everywhere. Every song is it’s own strain of suffering. And now I’m sitting here in a dark apartment on a Monday morning writing eulogies for an artist who wrote his own obituary. You don’t need me. You need Magnolia Electric Company and What Comes after the Blues and Ghost Tropic and Didn’t it Rain and The Lioness. This is a reminder that sunshine doesn’t always follow the deluge. Dead or alive, Jason Molina was one of the greatest of his generation. He was generous enough to grant us plenty of ghosts to haunt our heads. His records never failed to infect your brain. May he rest in potency. Hold on Magnolia.
You can donate to his medical fund as a memorial here.
From Fading Trails
MP3: Magnolia Electric Co-”Lonesome Valley”
From Magnolia Electric Co.
MP3: Magnolia Electric Co-”Farewell Transmission”