So I’m sorting through my email yesterday afternoon, reading press releases, checking out new videos, deleting forwards and spam, when I come across the latest edition of the Lefsetz Letter, which I signed up for after my interview with Jake Brown of Glorious Noise. Lefsetz is a well-known music insider; a former consultant for a number of major record labels, and one of the few critics who understands how fast the Old Music Industry Model is collapsing, and why we’ll all be better for it.
But yesterday’s Lefsetz Letter wasn’t about record sales or Billboard’s Top 20 or mismanaged consumerism (at least it wasn’t just about those things), it was about Bon Iver, or more specifically, why Lefsetz just didn’t get Bon Iver for the longest time. As Lefsetz writes:
So I'm confronted with the news of the day, the disillusionment of the political landscape, and this Bon Iver song, "Re: Stacks", is playing in the background, it's an antidote, it's soothing me, it's a warm blanket making me feel like I'm not alone, that I'll make it through.
And Bon Iver is not new. That initial conversation with Nigel [Grainge] was years ago. But like an electrical circuit missing a few links, oftentimes the power doesn't pass through until every connection is soldered. Today I got Bon Iver.
This is, I think, how great music works, and how our favorite music becomes our favorite music, taking awhile to really work its way in. And I mention all this because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Magnolia Electric Co., the 2003 Songs: Ohia album that has, for fairly inexplicable reasons, become one of my favorite albums over the past year.
A little background: Songs: Ohia is the project of Jason Molina, an alt-folk singer-songwriter originally from Loraine, OH who’s spent most of the past 15 years in and around Chicago. He was often written off early on as a sort of Will Oldham wannabe, partly because his first single “Nor Cease Thou Never Now” was released on Palace Records. Magnolia Electric Co. is both the name of the last Songs: Ohia album, and the name of Molina’s band after he retired Songs: Ohia.
I first heard Molina on the 2002 Amalgamated Sons of Rest album, an excessively bland EP with Molina, Oldham and Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts. And I probably first heard Magnolia Electric Co. a few years after that. But like Lefsetz with Bon Iver, nothing really stuck.
It’s a transitional album: no longer just Molina on guitar with sparse backing from one-off collaborators (Arab Strap on The Lioness, for example). It sounds like the album Molina was always working towards; building off 90s alt-country and Crazy Horse-style distorted ramblings, “The sound of a major talent gone major league,” as Uncut put it.
It’s also an intensely depressing album. One could argue that Molina has always been the most poetically minded songwriter of his generation, returning album after album to the same haunting natural imagery (hours could be spent counting mentions of “lightning” and “Chicago moon” in his songs). But unlike past albums, Magnolia Electric Co. strips away much of the lyrical obscurity, so you get lines like the opening to “Just Be Simple”: “You never hear me talk about one day gettin’ out/Why put a new address on the same old loneliness?”
But mostly what I want to get at here is this: Why this album didn’t hit me right away and why I think it’s one of best albums I’ve ever heard are one and the same. It’s difficult (in ways wholly unlike past Songs: Ohia albums), it’s uneven, and it’s unexpected in a lot of ways we’re not used to. Some of the critics who reviewed the album back in 2003 complained, for example, that the guest vocalists don’t work (Lawrence Peters on “Old Black Hen,” immediately followed by Scout Niblett on “Peoria Lunch Box Blues”). Why Molina decided to turn two songs on an eight-song album over to guest vocalists, and relative unknowns at that, I don’t know, but that kind of jarring disruption is what distinguishes it from so much mediocre radio-friendly market-approved shit. It doesn’t make for easy listening, but it is damn rewarding.