We expected to hear hardcore. Instead, there were the faint strums of an acoustic guitar, followed by plaintive singing. Songs: Ohia’s Jason Molina doesn’t sing until 25 seconds into Didn’t It Rain, and if you’re fidgeting like we were, you could mistake his voice for the record’s first sound.
Twenty-five seconds is a lifetime to nervous talkers who bang out two-minute screamo jams. We’d gathered in the living room of our drummer’s Richmond, Virginia rowhouse to hear the blank, white-labeled test-pressing of our LP, the first time any of us had spread our songs over twelve inches of vinyl. As the band’s vocalist, I was dreading hearing my own voice, captured and unimproving, shouting lyrics making fun of an emo package tour I’d seen the year before. Instead, I heard a wafting, eight-minute song that starts with, “No matter how dark the storm gets overhead/ They say someone’s watching from the calm at the edge,” then moves into a wordless hook, two ghostly voices floating through notes that a punk singer could never hit.
“This isn’t our record.”
“Yeah, no shit.”
“It sounds like Neil Young or something.”
We were boys, median age 20, who pulled on cigarettes so hard they crackled, who couldn’t stop telling terrible jokes, whose record had two different people screaming within the first four seconds of music. Restraint was not in our repertoire. So throwing on what we thought was our album and instead hearing something so graceful, intuitive and, honestly, better felt like a trick. And if the intention of that cosmic prank was to show us a world bigger than the basements we blasted on our van tours, it worked.
“It’s kinda good, though.”
Jason Molina was born in Lorain, Ohio in 1973 and grew up in a trailer near Lake Erie. Starting in the mid-1990s, Molina and his guitar were Songs: Ohia, a project that blended gothic Americana with High Fidelity-ready indie subgenres like slowcore and post-rock. Later, he was solo artist Jason Molina and the leader of the sprawling roots-rock ensemble Magnolia Electric Co., making music that followed his own mythology until his death in 2013. Didn’t It Rain, released 20 years ago this Saturday, is the culmination of his early career, the era when his songs slotted perfectly between Will Oldham and Karate on a mix CD from that corduroy-wearing older dude at your coffee shop job.
With an album title cribbed from an old gospel song and songwriting that refracts the thumping weariness of Chicago blues, Didn’t It Rain balances the most soulful songs in Molina’s early catalog with an extraordinarily lonely and spacious atmosphere. The album may have been recorded in Philadelphia, but since it’s laden with references to industry, the Midwest, and the Great Lakes, it’s a Chicago record through and through; the songs feel made to echo down the city’s lonely, beige corridors.
Molina liked to work fast, recording songs in just a couple of takes and refusing overdubs. This spontaneity turns Didn’t It Rain into a shifting, living thing as Molina’s collaborators learn the music on their feet. Jim Krewson’s high lonesome wail streaks to the surface of “Steve Albini’s Blues,” Jennie Benford’s mandolin adds a sad side-to-side swing, and Mike Brenner’s homemade, cello-esque “lap bass” gives highlights “Ring The Bell” and “Cross The Road, Molina” a sweeping undertow. Carrying it all is Molina’s voice, in its best form yet, plainspoken and mournful, desperate and resigned.
It’s an ominous album, and its tension comes from the way it quietly delivers heaviness. The second song, “Steve Albini’s Blues,” is an incantation, heavy metal dripping from a water tower, and it opens with the lyrics, “On the bridge out of Hammond/ See them brake lights burning.”
Hammond, Indiana is an industrial suburb of Chicago. I’ve been there twice: Once to test out a new Glock pistol, and once to watch Norm MacDonald crush a stand-up set in a smoky casino. At the comedy show, an oxygen tank sat in the chair next to me. Attached to it was a woman who snored while hugging a new breadmaker in a box — a weird casino premium, I guess — and when I laughed especially loud at one of Norm’s bits, she’d stir and chuckle under her breath as the appliance rattled in its box. Hammond’s the place where you go to give yourself over to big emotions, be they the mind-wiping black hole of terror that opens when you fire a gun, or the laughs that take your breath and wake the person next to you. “Steve Albini’s Blues” is looking for that release, that gunshot, that laugh.
I loved the few days when I got to know Didn’t It Rain but didn’t yet know who had made it. I decided that the album was a stranger’s private curio, and walked through Richmond, thinking that this enigmatic music could have been made by someone hunkered down in any of the houses that I passed. It told me that the world I’d been snobbing on as a self-righteous punk contained layers that I was yet to imagine.
I lived in a two-bedroom flophouse with five other people and various houseguests. I’d sit on my twin mattress, spinning the mystery record while my roommates slammed cabinets, waiting for the steam to stop seeping from the bathroom across the hall as the shower water cooled, wondering if the traveler in there was getting clean or shooting up. I was lonely in a crowd, and I wanted the quiet space that enshrouded the guitar on Didn’t It Rain to blot out everything around me. I was testing my own sadness against the music’s mythic despair, where the moon is wreathed in a “head dress of neon flames” and serpents cross universes to “circle around your neck.” I hoped that truly connecting to this music would prove my feelings deeper and realer than typical young-dude angst.
Then our drummer told the label we got the wrong record and there was a game of telephone with the pressing plant. We learned it was Songs: Ohia, that acoustic guy that our friend with the Tom Waits CDs liked, who had a split with a band with the most emo name in history: My Morning Jacket. Songs: Ohia was an indie rock guy, from a scene connected to ours by vegan cafes, small venues, and people in linty acrylic beanies. The pressing plant asked us to send the records to the right place and we said no, we love this music. It’s in the right place now.
While the follow-up to Didn’t It Rain, Jason Molina’s 2003 masterpiece The Magnolia Electric Co., bears the Songs: Ohia name, Molina insisted that Rain was the last Ohia album, and it’s easy to hear why. Didn’t It Rain marks the beginning of a transition, where Molina started using American roots music to focus his previously oblique songs, pushing the blues, country, and old-school rhythm and blues that had always flowed through them to the front. With a big, rotating cast of players, The Magnolia Electric Co. is a full-band record in the mold of Crazy Horse or the Band, and it positioned Molina within the growing indie Americana scene that he had presaged. To go with this transition, he changed the band name to the Magnolia Electric Co.
In this era of long-haired guys in tidy denim shirts playing acoustic guitars in Gap commercials, the Magnolia Electric Co. gigged with John Doe and the Sadies, while newer bands like the Avett Brothers cited them as an influence. But the Magnolia Electric Co. seemed to be suffering from being ahead of their time, running out of steam while former peers like My Morning Jacket and the Black Keys got famous. Molina developed a debilitating drinking problem and alarmed loved ones and bandmates as he sabotaged his own career and art. When he died of alcohol-related organ failure, alone in Indianapolis in March 2013, it had been three years since he’d played a show.
In the mid-2000s, indie rockers and aging punks were either going rootsy or dancy. I chose Column B because I was worried that depressing music would yank me backwards and plunk me down on that twin mattress again. I had a live-in girlfriend and a desk job, and I thought I’d finally outgrown that sad stuff, but I was wrong. The right person can get bummed out by anything.
I was having a bad week this past December, simultaneously feeling stuck while being confronted with the impermanence of everything around me. One foggy morning, I was idling at a red light in Inglewood, California when a truck shuddered to a stop in the next lane and I got a lungful of acrid exhaust right as “Steve Albini’s Blues” came on the stereo of my sensible-dad hatchback.
I’m 42 now, an age that Jason Molina never reached, and I hear new things when I revisit the music I loved a couple decades back: the rage simmering in Elliott Smith’s songs; the humor in the timeless, specific details of Will Oldham’s lyrics; and the fact that Didn’t It Rain ends on a note of hope.
The album’s last song, “Blue Chicago Moon,” is based around a fluid electric guitar lead that sounds like the lead from an old rhythm and blues band shuffling down a nighttime street after a gig, their instrument somehow charged by the streetlights. The drums — one of the only times a full kit is used on the record — give it a sense of forward motion, and Molina sings about joining someone else in what had otherwise been a lonely fight against depression:
You are not helpless
Try to beat it
And live through space’s loneliness
I’ll help you to try to beat it.
After spending the whole album warily assessing his surroundings, “Blue Chicago Moon” is a final ascent, closing the book with the sense that something new and better is on the horizon. It reminds me of my favorite photo of Jason Molina, the one that still adorns his official website. In the photo, Molina is leaning against the rim of a Chicago rooftop, wearing a black T-shirt and battered black Carhartt cap while elevated train tracks stretch downtown past his right shoulder. The light is bleary and dull like it just got done raining. The dust has been washed away and Molina is rising above the teeming maze of the city, blinking in the light, catching his breath and seeing what’s next. The world is bigger.