Ten years ago, Songs: Ohia released its 10th and final album, Magnolia Electric Co., marking the end of that band and the beginning of another, which would take its name from Songs: Ohia's final effort. Eight months ago, Jason Molina, the genius behind the record, died from organ failure in Indianapolis "with nothing but a cell phone in his pocket." It was the ungenerous end to years of alcoholism and depression. And today, Secretly Canadian released the anniversary edition of Magnolia Electric Co., almost universally agreed to be the finest Jason Molina record, a perfect distillation of everything he worked toward, a clear-eyed work of art that powers through, as Molina would have it, "the static and distance."
Something about all this feels like a true triumph, even if it's a triumph a little too late.
Much has been made of Magnolia Electric Co. marking a shift in Molina's musical approach; his label describes it as "a half-turn away from the Appalachian-rooted Songs: Ohia catalog." But revisiting the record after a decade of close listening, that's seems only half-true.
Even though it followed the spare, sorrowful Didn't It Rain, Magnolia Electric Co. isn't exactly Molina's Bringing it All Back Home, where the traditionally quiet acoustic strummer picks up an electric guitar. Indeed, Molina had worked with backing bands previously (Arab Strap on 2000's The Lioness, notably) and made his share of noisy guitar-rock records.
What Magnolia Electric Co. is, then, is simply the best collection of songs that Molina ever assembled. I'd put "I've Been Riding With the Ghost" alongside any Neil Young barn-burner, and "John Henry Split My Heart" yields some of Molina's richest, most arresting, most unguarded imagery: "Everything you hated me for / Honey, there was so much more / I just didn't get busted."
Name me any lyricist, living or dead, and I'd put Molina right there alongside him/her -- and that so few know his name is beside the point.
Incredibly, Secretly Canadian has managed to justify the whole idea of an "anniversary deluxe edition" of an already perfect record. The never-released studio version of "Whip-Poor-Will" is somehow more haunting than the version that would eventually make it onto 2009's Josephine, and "The Big Game Is Every Night," previously only available as an impossible-to-find bonus track from the Japanese edition of the record, is downright necessary listening.
Most make the case that "Hold On Magnolia" is Molina's masterwork, but "Big Game" might actually take the title: a reimagining of important figures of American culture, from Mark Twain to Johnny Cash, playing a baseball game, dripping with symbolism.
"It'll get so quiet when this record ends," Molina sings at the beginning of that song, "you can hear the first hour of the world."
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Molina's records have that ability: to feel like they stretch back to the beginning of time, convincing the listener that they can make sense of something so vast and impossible. It's more than a song. It's a gift. It's towering and invaluable.