The Anniversary

The Magnolia Electric Co. Turns 20

Secretly Canadian
Secretly Canadian

The Magnolia Electric Co. did not come out of nowhere. It came out of desiccated Lorain, Ohio, a place that surely felt like nowhere, where Jason Molina spent his childhood alongside the shores of Lake Erie, memorizing his father’s heavy metal records. It came out of nearby Oberlin College and Conservatory, an artsy progressive enclave in the midst of rural decay, where Molina became enmeshed in the indie rock scene as an undergrad and delved deep into the lineage of classic country troubadours. It came out of another college town, Bloomington, Indiana, where the upstart record label Secretly Canadian made Molina their flagship artist and adopted him into their community. It came out of Chicago, where Molina and his wife-to-be settled in as his Songs: Ohia project became an underground sensation, and where a small army of musicians came together to track the album in the summer heat. It came out of the Midwest, in all its rugged glory and blighted horror.

Yet in the context of Molina’s career, there was no precedent for an album like this. An associate of Will Oldham — who’d suggested the Songs: Ohia moniker (seen scrawled on one of Molina’s early demo tapes) and released the project’s first single on his Palace Records — Molina made his name on peculiar folk-rock laced with traces of slowcore and scraping post-hardcore, raw yet mysterious, quiet even when it got loud. His prior album, 2002’s acclaimed Didn’t It Rain, had taken his hushed, haunted balladry to a minimalist extreme. Yet in the summer of 2002, just four months after releasing Didn’t It Rain, Molina convened an assortment of friends and bandmates at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studios to record a batch of towering country-rock songs, music more colorful and muscular than anything he’d ever laid to tape. It was a radical pivot — the last record to be released under the Songs: Ohia name, the birth of a new band called Magnolia Electric Co. — and it became the pinnacle of Molina’s career.

For me, The Magnolia Electric Co. is not just Molina’s magnum opus, it’s the best album of 2003 and one of the greatest albums of all time. I can’t think of many other records that command such reverence, that elicit such a profound emotional reaction, that so brilliantly match their sound to their subject matter. Released 20 years ago this Saturday, Magnolia has aged magnificently. Its influence can be heard across the musical landscape — spawning covers by the likes of Amanda Shires and Kevin Morby & Waxahatchee and leaving an unmistakable imprint on MJ Lenderman — yet the particular language and aesthetic conjured here has never been repeated. The album took on new dimensions of tragic beauty in 2013, when Molina died from organ failure stemming from alcoholism. But well before its creator passed away, Magnolia felt like a sacred document, a beleaguered miracle. At the time, I couldn’t believe an album like this existed. I’m still not sure I can.

From start to finish, The Magnolia Electric Co. is triumphantly bleak. Leaning into a drawl that likely traces back to his parents’ roots in West Virginia, Molina bellows vividly, with a sort of defeated resolve, about heartbreak and alienation and despair. There’s a desperation in his voice that goes beyond performance, from his blunt opening utterance “The whole place is dark!” to the climactic moment when he howls, “Hold on, Magnolia/ I think it’s almost time!” In the third quarter of the album, he turns over one song apiece to Chicago country singer Lawrence Peters and UK indie-folk singer Scout Niblett, who maintain Molina’s depth and pathos; Peters’ loping, sad-eyed baritone stands in striking contrast to Niblett’s piercing soprano wail. It all adds up to a portrait of a forsaken landscape where people are just barely hanging on, where you’re more likely to encounter a specter on the highway than hear from a neglectful God. Though not a concept album, Magnolia takes on a sense of place, a sort of mythic post-industrial wasteland populated by weathered souls and wayward spirits.

These images are conveyed through striking, memorable turns of phrase; start combing through the lyrics sheet for highlights and you might end up quoting the whole album. I mean, “I’ve been riding with the ghost, I’ve been doing whatever it told me/ I’ve been looking door to door to see if there was someone who’d hold me.” I mean, “And everything you hated me for/ Honey, there was so much more.” I mean, “Real truth about it is/ No one gets it right/ Real truth about it is/ We’re all supposed to try.” Molina spends the record wrestling not just with heavy circumstances but with guilt, shame, self-improvement, and the weight of morality. One song begins, “You’ll never hear me talk about one day getting out/ Why put a new address on the same old loneliness?” The next song ends, “Almost no one makes it out/ You’re talking to one right now/ For once, almost was good enough.” That tug of war between fatalism and hope is central to the album; as it follows its arc from shadows to the stars and back down into twangy melancholia, the spectacular finale “Hold On Magnolia” leaves open the question whether escape from life’s sorrows is possible.

The soundtrack to this earthbound cosmic battle is raucous rock ‘n’ roll in the Crazy Horse lineage, but with an unmistakable heartland touch. At its rip-roaring peaks, slide guitar and pedal steel slice through walls of distortion as the rhythm section pounds. Woozy saloon piano and a small artillery of subtle, essential riffs graze the edges of the mix. Even in moments of quietude, the drums smack hard. (Turns out this Steve Albini guy is pretty good at this.) Upon announcing the album, Molina wrote, “We’re going for a sort of 1950’s sound, ancient echo techniques on the voxs, doo wop back up singers (Jennie Benford, Scout Niblett, Lawrence Peters), dirty guitars, and as usual, as much of this is going to be done live as is possible.” Suffice it to say the album does not resemble 1950s rock, save for the wild abandon that courses through it, the sense that it emanates from a roadhouse somewhere far beyond the reach of polite society. Rather than old-timey, it feels timeless.

Molina’s band on Magnolia plays with the kind of lived-in telepathic connection that suggests they’ve been road-testing this material for months, so it’s staggering to learn — from Erin Osmon’s essential biography Jason Molina: Riding With The Ghost — that the album was tracked in three days by players who were working their way through these songs for the first time. With an expertise befitting old Nashville studio pros, the musicians slide in and out of the arrangements, ramping up the energy or disappearing into silence as necessary. Gorgeous flourishes abound: the fiddle that emerges into the empty space of “The Old Black Hen” just as Peters recedes from the spotlight, the slide guitar hook that intertwines with an eerie backing chorus on “Riding With The Ghost,” the pedal steel that paints the final seconds of “Just Be Simple” like teardrops. Most dumbfounding of all is the knowledge that powerhouse opener “Farewell Transmission,” an apocalyptic roots-rock supernova sweeping across the land, was recorded in one take after nothing but a quick run through the chord progression.

“Farewell Transmission” — good lord. It truly does not get much better than this ranting, raving, rambling barnburner of a song. The rangy, mysterious slide guitar lick that ushers us in. The slow-motion tidal wave of drums and guitars that sweeps us away. The absolute rush when Molina announces, “Mama, here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws!” just as everything around him intensifies. The spooky choir of backup singers that turns the phrase “long dark blues” into an incantation. The way it all builds and burns and then slowly dissipates, at just the right moment, until nothing remains but Molina’s final, undeniable command.

It’s an astonishing intro, the kind of song that sets the rest of an album up for failure. But The Magnolia Electric Co. maintains that balance of splendor and squalor through seven more tracks, mustering a powerful mystique even as it stirs up painfully real, deeply human sensations. In Riding With The Ghost, we’re told that during the Magnolia sessions, “Molina had the posture of an Olympic athlete, as if his whole life’s work was coming down to this one moment.” Elsewhere in the book, Molina’s wife Darcie explains that every time he finished a new album, he always believed it was the best thing he’d ever do. But in the case of this inspiring, devastating record, that sentiment was finally correct. Through the static and distance, The Magnolia Electric Co. endures. Listen.

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