Pyramid Electric Co.
(Secretly Canadian; 2004)
By Scott Reid | 19 January 2004
"Dark repetition, dark repetition, dark repetition, dark repetition…"
It might seem like an inconsequential lyric that Jason Molina wistfully repeats at the end of the title track on Pyramid Electric Co., but he’s hardly been the type to arbitrarily toss out a lyric. Pyramid the first record to bear only his name and not that of his former moniker, Songs: Ohia, recently retired in turn for the new pseudonym, Magnolia Electric Co.. In the interim, Molina releases this seven track vinyl-only record that arrives in stark comparison to his last release, 2003’s magnificent Magnolia Electric Co., which was in turn a significant leap from 2002’s Didn’t It Rain.
But even the most dedicated fans of his work from the past few years will not find it easy to make their way through this record, so painfully heart-on-sleeve and sparse (some might translate that into "boring," but it’s their loss) that only those whole could wrap their hearts and minds around Ghost Tropic and Axxcess and Ace will feel initially comfortable in its confines. Although there isn’t a lot accompanying Molina and his guitar (hardly anything, really, besides perhaps the piano that drives "Red Comet Dust," footsteps or a sporadic calm of feedback here and there), it nevertheless demands your attention and fills every inch of its sonic space with just over forty cathartic minutes of poetic fear, devastation, loss, and regret.
Pyramid Electric Co. is certainly foreshadowed by its title track, and its lyrical coda describes the experience of these seven tracks better than any reviewer possibly could. This record certainly is "dark;" there is something strikingly desolate about the songs outside of its stripped aesthetic and stark lyrics that make it extremely compelling, even without songs as immediately awe-inspiring as "Farewell Transmission" or "Didn’t It Rain." Even as he repeats the line — dark repetition dark repetition dark repetition — it begins to sound like a defeat, a confession of limitation. The focus of this album certainly isn’t any flashy or gimmicky songwriting as most of them — true to the "repetition" portion of this lyric — revolve around a simple two or three chord progression repeated ad nauseam over five, six or even, in the case of the title track, eight minutes.
On Pyramid, Molina isn’t only observing, he’s relating and regretting, mentally unfolding and sharing its darkest of recesses. Like an even more stripped Astral Weeks, it resumes Molina’s ruminations of hopelessness and defeated optimism that filled Magnolia Electric Co. and explores it in painfully sharp detail.
"Red Comet Dust" follows the opening track with, surprisingly, an austere piano backing that acts to, if it’s even possible, make Molina’s voice sound even more like a shivering being on the edge of complete disrepair. "Song of the Road" almost makes for an upbeat number with its jittery finger picking a la Iron & Wine, sticking out amongst a sea of reverberated and spatial, dissonant chords, accompanied by the record’s familiar hopeless and frustrated tone; "Lead gray eclipse above/ Hiss of the snakes rolling beside us," he repeats with a desperate whisper, "we are thrown into the shade." He finishes the lyrical thought with an optimistic "I think we’ll be ok." The optimism — assuming it isn’t sarcastic — of course, doesn’t last long.
"Honey Watch Your Ass" is a sardonic jab at love, something which surfaces throughout most of the record in lyrical bursts; “hey sucker are you lonely,” which jumps out of "Division St. Girl" like a figure in the dark or sudden pang of self-disgust, would stick out on nearly any other album, but here it becomes a single piece of the larger, reccurent themes. "Spectral Alphabet," the shortest and by far the "catchiest" of the bunch, continues with lyrical bookends of confusion and regret; "emptiness and blue beside the city moon," he begins, only to conclude with a pessimistic disconnection to the physical world; "the empty streets hardly remember you/ the rest of us do/ a promise inscribed by death in a spectral alphabet/ the words look foreign and forgotten by the world again/ what it says, could that have kept us out of fiery hands"
There isn’t much of a conclusion at any point, making his ruminations all the more poignant and, given the few short moments of optimism, disheartening. "I guess your pain never weakened/ your cool blood started burning/ scorching most of us in the flames/ but there are things you can’t change/ you call that the curse of a human life/ that you couldn’t change," Molina insists on the album’s gorgeous closer, "Long Desert Train." The record starts to come full circle, enveloping all in-between in its resignation, like a struggle for peace of mind that ends in bitter confusion and an admission that, and it’s hard to not feel like Molina is speaking directly to himself as he sings this, "you almost made it, almost made it again." And yet, for all the morbidly depressing thoughts running through this album’s veins, the most striking remains the initial revelation that comes just two minutes in: "You’ll get used to it/ we all get used to it." For an album that chronicles the utter defeat of the human spirit, Pyramid does so with an apposite monotony and sparseness. This is one man’s constant, unchanging struggle, and the best we can do is listen in and try not to feel overwhelmed.