Jason Molina, RIP
Prolific underground folk-rocker Jason Molina passed away on Saturday, March 16, of organ failure brought on by alcohol consumption, after a prolonged battle for his health. Molina is an underground icon, and his passing will only further bolster the high regard in which his dedicated fan base holds him: He was an expert mythologizer, and he spent a long career casting himself as the damned poet of his native Midwest.
Molina began his career in the mid-'90s at Oberlin College, a small art school that produced Liz Phair as well as key members of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. His early, vinyl-only singles have much in common with Will Oldham -- an artist to whom Molina is often compared, and with whom he collaborated -- and Cat Power. He took roost at Secretly Canadian, then a fledgling label in Bloomington, Ind., and rarely released records through anyone else. After his passing, the label described him as "the cornerstone of Secretly Canadian."
Molina's most-loved vehicle, Songs: Ohia, wrangled a cult following as he evolved from a reedy, lo-fi folk singer into a churlish conjurer with a doomy, stentorian voice. He sang about love and sometimes sex -- as on the oddly steamy favorite "Captain Badass" -- but more often he sang of large, obtuse forces, projecting them onto moons, factories and highways.
His imagery was uncommon, his delivery striking. He often addressed the listener -- "Bring a Coleman lantern and a radio / A Cleveland game and two fishing poles" he implored on "Blue Factory Flame" -- and wrestled with an ungraspable, communal darkness. Molina sparred with "The Dark" and "The Ghost," fighting alongside his listeners, but not for them. On 2002's expert Didn't It Rain, he balanced his pugnacious austerity with a veiled fondness for his adopted Chicago. It stands as his best work.
The Songs: Ohia moniker was shuttered in 2003 after the arresting Magnolia Electric Co., a full-band album that draped Molina's gray poetry over the classic rock templates established by Crazy Horse and Creedance Clearwater Revival. That album led to the formation of a band of the same name, which remained his primary outlet until his death. A robust, bombastic country rock outfit largely out of step with Molina's previous efforts, Magnolia Electric Co. were a powerful live act that recorded three studio albums and a box set; during this time, he also released two albums under his own name and collaborated with Will Johnson on Molina & Johnson.
Listening to Molina was an exercise in gloominess, but tracing his career was genuinely fun. He confounded die-hards by releasing limited-edition albums and low-run vinyl singles. He altered arrangements during live shows and harangued inattentive audience members, though he was cheerier in full-band settings. He sat on brilliant live tracks and demos for years before cutting inferior studio versions. For an artist prone to eight-minute invectives against unnamable evils, his catalog never felt static.
Fans were first made aware of his health problems in 2011, when Molina's family announced that a prolonged illness requiring several rehab stints had plunged the singer, lacking medical insurance, into debt; fans donated to the Jason Molina Medical Fund in exchange for exclusive material. It was later revealed that he was recovering while working on a farm in West Virginia. He last communicated via a short statement on his website in May 2012, thanking fans for their support. A short solo album, Autumn Bird Songs, appeared late last year and stands as his final release.
He was 39 years old. Molina's sullenness provides ample opportunity to posthumously read his ills into his lyrics, but this would be a mistake: The forces in his best songs are more abstract, grander, and worthier of his considerable talents. It's a testament to the hard, heavy drama of his songs that the evils that finally consumed him could never compare.