Backtrack: Jason Molina

Over the weekend, Jason Molina died of organ failure due to alcohol consumption. His label, Secretly Canadian, released a statement. He’d been to rehab, and the last public news about his whereabouts was that he was resting up on a farm in West Virginia, which sounded, from a distance, almost romantic, if somewhat dire. His family still has lots of medical bills to pay. Donate if you can.

I never knew Jason Molina, but I know his music. Probably most people that will write about him in the coming months are in the same boat as me. When an artist passes away, the urge, inevitably, is to write about their music as a way of understanding them, which works with some luck, but is probably often off base too. Maybe the Molina in those songs is the same Molina who went on tour, who appeared in a brief tour documentary that featured a lot of shots of him staring at farmland. The same Molina who recorded album after album of bleak moments with this almost indefinable redemptive quality that made them into something more than just an endless parade of downer jams, or maybe he was someone completely different.

Listening to any of Molina’s music—the live records, the demos, the albums as Songs: Ohia, the albums as Magnolia Electric Co. — that sadness is omnipresent. I think it’s the reason that he’s simultaneously so universally loved and so universally overlooked. He presented something inside of himself that was inside of everyone, and it’s something that most of us would rather not face.

So because I can’t talk about Molina the person, I’ll talk about what his music meant to me and hope that it’s good enough.

Last year, after going through some personal tragedies and also some upheavals that are terrible but really just part of adult life, I got it into my head that I needed to do a story on Molina. He’d been pretty quiet musically, but there were signs that he’d been working on new material, or at least thinking about working on new material. In my head, I thought I would go and spend a week with him, talk to him about the importance of his music and maybe in the process I’d learn something about myself. I imagined it as a portrait of a living legend who was preparing to finally, humbly claim his place as an artist of our generation. The story never really came together for a lot of reasons. Looking back on it now, it seems sort of selfish, but part of the beauty of Molina’s music is that to really connect to it, you have to engage with it on a selfish level. You have to let the songs be about you so that you become them.

As with any other devotee of Molina’s career, my favorite record of his shifts as I get older. In the early part of the ’00s, my go-to was his final album as Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.. Confusingly, after that one, he’d drop the Songs: Ohia name and start recording as Magnolia Electric Co., using the album as a jumping off point for a sound that better utilized his backing band. The music was still sad, but it didn’t feel quite so desolate anymore. I guess that’s why I always come back to 2002’s Didn’t It Rain, which was startlingly direct and isolated.

There’s a song called “Blue Factory Flame” toward the end of Didn’t It Rain, where Molina sings “every mile for ten thousand miles/ and every year for a thousand years/ every night for a thousand more/ I hear ‘em calling, they never say to come home/ where I am paralyzed by emptiness.” His voice rolls long over smokey guitar and trembling cymbals. As much as any of his music is about loneliness, this bit pretty starkly illustrates the loss of the comfort of home, the timeless darkness of the open road stretching out your entire life into something unpredictable and formidable.

It’s songs like that that pretty firmly place Molina’s music in the context of solo listening. These songs are too dark to share with anyone, but they’re too universal to ignore. Meeting someone who loved his music as much as me wasn’t even that uncommon, but it always felt like some sort of exclusive group therapy session that rarely involved any talking. It was less about understanding the dark parts of life — everyone understands those — more a willingness to admit that those dark parts can be immense and insurmountable without help, even if that help, for a lot of us, comes from an object like one of Molina’s records.

On a recent road trip a friend and I spent a whole lot of time listening to Molina’s records, mostly because we both knew that it was alright. We were both fans. We listened to most of his catalog at various points in that trip, but I kept putting Didn’t It Rain on, and we’d talk about how good and sad and just well done it was. Typical vague music talk. We listened to “Blue Factory Flame” a ton, and had something so say about it every time we finished listening. There’s one part of the song that we never talked about though. Molina sings “you can tell by the rust and by the chains/ and by the oil that they bleed/ the crew of crows fly the skulls and bones/ they fly the colors of their homes/ I fly the cross of the blue factory flame/ stitched with heavy sulphur thread/ they ain’t proud colors but they’re true colors of my home,” drawing out the true toward the end long enough that his thick voice wavers. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but it’s powerful too. Molina is accepting his heritage and his place in the world and what he’s been given. He’s not especially proud of those things, but he’s willing to own them. I’ve never been able to properly articulate what that means to me, and I still can’t. Maybe because it’s so heavy, or maybe because it always felt too close to something unnamable.