Jason Molina is an old soul. Nearly a decade ago when he released his debut record, Songs: Ohia, it was quite clear that he had been around the block and like John Prine before him, Molina has a voice and songs with a depth, fragility, authority and tragedy that simply shouldn’t belong to someone so young. The trouble with this knowledge and gift: it comes at a price. To be able to write and sing with this much emotion, you have to survive the feelings first.
Over the years Molina has called his music by many names and tried just as many genres. Recently with his new band, Magnolia Electric Co [Official Site], he is easing into what could be called an alt-country/folk phase, a fitting stylistic shift because the sound is the perfect match for his world weary songs of loss, traveling, adventure and regret.
Magnolia Electric Co.’s new album Josephine serves as a further exploration of their last record 2006′s Fading Trails (which to me was probably the greatest record of that year), and the band returns to the lonely highways and byways of the American west. Although the band provides a strong backing throughout the album, it is clearly Molina show. His guitar, lyrics and voice take center stage.
Molina has a particular kind of wanderlust that almost borders on the obsessive: to him the open road is a dichotomy – in one respect, it represents freedom, adventure and a world of endless possibility. On the other hand, with it comes loneliness, cold and fear. On the title track, Molina laments the loss of what could only be the love of his life due to a wondering eye. In this instance, his direction is not turned towards a pretty girl but to the next horizon. He eventually realizes that in trying so hard to find out where he belonged that he couldn’t see a good thing while he had it. Unfortunately for Molina it is too late and he must let this former love go to live her life without him.
Despite or maybe because of his previous loss on the very next track, “Shenandoah”, he personifies the Shenandoah Valley. Referring to it as the keeper of his secrets and himself as the ability to understand its mysteries, he treats this space like an old friend. Later on the record, he dedicates another song to a place – “Shiloh”. It has been said that when it comes to Magnolia Electric Co’s songs it is hard to tell if it is about a person, place or both, since he sings about each with equal fervor. It seems that despite his shyness and torture that settling or traveling does to him, he respects that all of these faces and places made him the man he is today. Molina has much in common to greats like Hank Williams, who echo the same love/hatred of the road in songs like “Lost Highway” and “Ramblin’ Man”. In case you didn’t know is truly high praise indeed.
Included in this album are snapshots of living on the road. In arguably the album’s highlight, “Whip-Poor-Will”, tells the story of a long, cold and lonely night in a small hotel called The Southern Cross. It is hard not to picture Molina sitting at his window with guitar in hand singing up to the moon, into the heavens and spectacular nothingness that is the dry southern air of some border town. As Molina sings, “It is a long way between horizons and it gets further every day,” in the opener “O! Grace”, the road knows no end when there is no place to call home.
The great singer/songwriters don’t merely sing songs, they paint pictures. With Josephine Jason Molina has crafted a wonderful, yet bleak reflection of the world that is as humbling as it is beautiful. Josephine is arguably the greatest album from one of America’s finest and most gifted talents.