Revisiting Jason Molina’s Masterpiece, ‘The Magnolia Electric Co.’

There are few musicians in history who were nearly as prolific as Jason Molina. In his too-brief, 14-year career, the singer-songwriter released music under his own name, the moniker Songs: Ohia, and as the frontman of Magnolia Electric Co. an astounding 17 full-length albums as well as several EPs. It was perhaps what was so devastating about his death earlier this year, resulting from Molina’s long struggle with alcoholism: the realization that, had Molina lived, he would have produced a staggering catalog of recordings. It’s with that in mind that one listens to The Magnolia Electric Co. now; the album, released in 2003 and reissued today, is Molina’s most accessible record and, in turn, his greatest achievement.

Molina’s early lo-fi recordings are brilliant in their own right, but it’s his last album recorded as Songs: Ohia (or, as some argue, the first recorded as Magnolia Electric Co.) that allowed Molina to solidify his artistic voice. With the help of producer Steve Albini and a slew of musicians, Molina’s opus is a grand, epic, hard-hitting record that brings together his singer-songwriter sensibilities, his Midwestern, blue-collar background, and the full sound of the folk- and blues-inspired rock ‘n’ roll influences of Neil Young and Warren Zevon.

Like the rest of Molina’s oeuvre, The Magnolia Electric Co. is dark, a mood set in the very first lines of the album’s opener, “Farewell Transmission”: “The whole place is dark/ Every light on this side of the town/ Suddenly it all went down.” The motifs that popped up throughout his career are all present here: the absence of light, the moon, the blues, the ghosts. Recorded in Chicago, the record retains the city’s dreary winter sensibility — it’s difficult to imagine the album, getting its tenth-anniversary reissue as the weather turns cold and gray in mid-November, was originally released in April 2003 as the frost began to fade. At that moment in his career, Molina was on the cusp of greatness and rebirth; ten years later, he’s gone, but he has left in his music the legacy of a man trying very hard to beat the demons that eventually ravaged him.

As a winter album, The Magnolia Electric Co. works perfectly as an accompaniment to the early dusks and long nights. The songs are lengthy, deep, and bleak — the industrial sounds of steel guitars and the plucks of fiddles, paired with Molina’s light, faltering voice, give off a sense of despair and loneliness, yet the fact is that, compared to the previous Songs: Ohia records, this was Molina at his most extroverted. Surrounded by a full band, as well as giving two songs to guest vocalists Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett, the album shows that Molina was ready to break free from the solo act and collaborate with — and lead — a group of peers.

There was nothing very engaging about Molina as a performer; his strengths came from his words, his sounds, and the purity of his voice. I saw Magnolia Electric Co. a handful of times, and met Molina once. He was an unassuming, quiet man, whose charm and blatant niceness was part of his appeal. (It still warms my heart to remember how his sincerity was so evident from the stage, particularly in the way he said, “Thank you kindly,” in response to the applause after he finished a song.) Molina was beloved by his fans, but he never reached a major audience; he wasn’t as straightforward an “indie” singer-songwriter as Elliott Smith, nor was he producing mass-appeal alt-country like Ryan Adams (two of the contemporaries that Pitchfork compared him to in their review of the Magnolia Electric Co. reissue). And he was very often taken for granted as a poor man’s Will Oldham.

But unlike Smith, Adams, and Oldham, Molina’s songwriting has a deep connection not just to himself and his place within his world, but America at large. In the grand tradition of American folk music, Molina put the familiar motifs and symbols — Route 66, John Henry, Mark Twain, the West, Willie Nelson, the Man in Black — to good use within the context of his own life and struggles. On “The Big Game Is Every Night,” a soaring, ten-minute song originally limited to the Japanese edition of The Magnolia Electric Co. and now included on the American reissue, Molina brings together those images of Americana while turning the lens back inward:

Shine on the distance between me and the last thing I see
Let it be me helping
Let it be me honestly
Let it be me working
On being a better me

Within the context of the ten years that followed, and the devastating personal anguish that Molina faced, it’s clear that The Magnolia Electric Co. represented a turning point for not just his career, but also his life. It can now be seen as a record that foretold what was to come, and, within the larger picture it painted, the cycles of struggle that had come before it.