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What Comes After the Blues?

By Robin Smith | 31 March 2014

You can learn a lot about Jason Molina in a short time. In a few modest songs, you can learn that he’s afraid of ghosts, fond of the moon, comforted by the stars, and that he sees more under cover of darkness than in the morning light. The day I switched from the music of Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Co.—same band, new name—I listened to the forgotten Nashville Moon (2007), and looked down on its instructive tracklist with a knowing smile. The record’s middle section is like a database of Molina’s demons and allies, run together as if they can interchange. “No Moon on the Water” goes back to back with “Nashville Moon,” and “Don’t This Look Like the Dark” is followed by “North Star.” The lyrics are even more revealing, though; they suggest his special subjects have no parameters, that they aren’t deepened in one song alone. On “Nashville Moon” a lonely Molina poses questions that bleed each motif together: “How many ghosts will I meet on the trail tonight?”, he ponders, and then, as if both fears come together, “How far am I from living my whole life only in the dark?” The road is long and the trek is hard; the night is full of evil. But Molina sings to the ghosts like they’re the same as the moon and the stars. Despite posturing as a lonely country waltz, “Nashville Moon” is the sound of an artist surrounded by his kin, no nemeses to speak of—just familiar faces. Here comes the trumpet.

Molina found it really hard to let go of some things. He is that special kind of songwriter who has favourite phrases and obsessive trains of thoughts. If you look long enough, you can find them in any songwriter. I urge each of you, one day, to play the world’s most tender checklist game: what does my favourite artist say the most? I was playing it long before I listened to Molina—I know Will Sheff is affectionate towards rivers, sea shores, and the rock ‘n’ roll unsung. A songwriter’s favourite words might not look like a lot at first, but they tie their records together until it feels like you’re making a trip to your old school anytime you listen to them. For Sheff, a river is a great source of consistency in your life. It can be visited half way through your bumbling twenties or at the age of ten, and you’ll still stare into it. Molina’s props feel different, though. They are less resourceful and they grab you instantly, rolling into view before the rest of his poetic vision gets a chance to. You don’t revisit his music for the clues, because none of them are hidden.

One thing Molina really cared for was the blues. The first time you hear about them is likely to be on “Farewell Transmission,” the opener to his agreed upon masterpiece, the rockin’ Magnolia Electric Co. (2003). Like the rest of his less-than-subtle favourite words and phrases, the blues don’t go quietly. “Listen!”, he yells abruptly, the band joining him on the next chant as if the loudest command must be followed by perked ears and a fiercely loyal silence: “Long, dark, blues.”

I’ve listened to those words over and over. They come apart as if Molina is reinventing what “the blues” even means. Has it ever been dark before? Has it ever lasted seven minutes? How long will it be around for? Magnolia Electric Co. is the final record in the Songs: Ohia catalogue, but because of “the blues,” it feels like the beginning of Molina’s entire songwriting career. “Farewell Transmission” sounds like the beginning of this artist’s universe, the scene set like a galactic day of reckoning no earlier record was preparing for. Didn’t It Rain (2002) and The Lioness (2000) are still about the blues, but lethargically, as if it’s a gruesome aside we just have to live with. “Farewell Transmission” is a different kind of declaration, because things are falling from the sky and all hell is breaking loose. The band’s chants of “long, dark, blues” are coupled with another Molina hallmark: “Must be the big star about to fall.” This one he sings with indifference, as if he’s been prepared for this hippie apocalypse since about forever. It’s finally happening.

What’s interesting is that Molina’s conception of the blues feels completely ambiguous. It’s not a musical entity, nor one particular feeling. Sometimes he’s just talking about the colour, for god’s sake. “Two Blue Lights,” a classic Songs: Ohia duet between Molina and long-time collaborator Jennie Benford—two artists who always sounded separated by a wall when they sung together—is doused in blue flame. Really, the only way Molina defines the blues is in their presence. What’s important is just that they’re long and dark, that they’re following this man wherever he goes. There’s a reason Molina cares about the things he cares about. The dark always comes back around, carrying the moon on its back. The stars are always sparkling. Ghosts will live as long as the dead remain in your memory. And the blues? They’re just another thing you can’t shake.

Molina carried a lot of his anxieties with him from Magnolia Electric Co. to his band of the same name. There’s something chilling in how that record was pressed without the Songs: Ohia name attached to it, as if this new era in his career, which started with What Comes After the Blues (2005), wasn’t a fresh start. It didn’t disambiguate anything. Even though they’re essentially the same thing, there’s an ominous distance cast between his two bands; it would be too clean to know when one ended and the other began.

The blues didn’t leave, though. The blues are a parasite. My favourite Magnolia Electric Co. song is the fretfully titled “What Comes After the Blues,” which, befitting of Molina’s muddy trail of thought, comes on Nashville Moon rather than the record it shares its name with. There should be a question mark there, though—it should be “What Comes After the Blues?”, because Molina is asking the title as a question, and quite empathetically. In the first two choruses, it’s all he says, begged as if he’s scared it’ll dissolve into ruinous rhetoric if he doesn’t keep asking. Curiously, though, the title reads more like an inviting medical pamphlet: open up, and the blues will be revealed.

Of course, that doesn’t happen. The song is Molina at his most basically existential. “What was I,” he asks—“What am I?”, he corrects—towards a question grounded in earthier desperation: “Lord, what have I done?” This train of thought haunts the song twice, coming as the opening lines of the first verse and later as the conclusion of the second. It’s a cyclical sense of dread that Molina lets in, and no answers break the circle. Much like “Farewell Transmission,” this is a forceful and endangered song based on a guitar riff so frequent and suffocating it could be considered ostinato. You might dare to call it alt-country for its outro, which bends the riff’s voice into something altogether more twang, but it’s better labelled as aspirational space rock. Molina’s terrestrial sound is often used simply to scream at the sky, and “What Comes After the Blues” is the culmination of that. He sings about the B&O railroad like it’s carrying him into the clouds.

“What Comes After the Blues” might be my favourite song Molina ever wrote, but I’m unsatisfied with myself for thinking so. It feels like a cheap answer compared with the wealth of technically more interesting songs he wrote, like “Farewell Transmission,” with its intentional tectonic shift. It also feels oddly unsatisfying as a song; its existentialism is unfulfilling, and over before the band can even cut through the verse-chorus structure—Molina never much gave a shit about bridges, but beyond his desperate voice, “What Comes After the Blues” is steady and underdeveloped. His voice is the crux of what makes me want to return to the song—like his band, it rolls steadily, like this is bar none the best take of many in an actor’s attempt to remember his lines. Molina’s voice never crackles, either: in its most perverse and unhinged moments, it merely wavers, for little more than a second, before returning to its former clarity. With his final declaration—that “this will even outlive the dark,” because of course, the dark and the blues are twins—the song marks itself. I revisit it knowing I won’t learn anything more about it, because everything in Molina’s poetry exists in its first take, but that I will at least hear this moment again.

While writing this piece, I looked up live versions of “Farewell Transmission” and instead stumbled upon a demo of the song called, reliably, wonderfully, hauntingly, “The Long Dark Blues.” It took me back to my first experience with Molina’s music. I was at home for Christmas, sitting alone in my living room in the middle of a half-arsed rainstorm, listening to Magnolia Electric Co. It felt as if Molina’s metaphors were coming alive, at least a little: “I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost” brought about ghosts with its chorus’s refrain, in which the band hum together until they’re sore with the secrets of the other world. I can remember thinking how much Molina wanted the word ghost to stick out, even if he only sung the word once. There are certain words that matter to him more than others; we can pick up the others for ourselves, and there are dozens of phrases I heard that day, and adored, that he never said again. “Farewell Transmission” spat out all of his best sayings in one long line, as if he was improvising them right there in that room. But then the chord sequence changed, he shouted “Listen!”, and I heard the words I needed to hear: “long, dark, blues.” What are the blues? Fuck knows. Keep your ears peeled for them.