Magnolia Electric Co.
What Comes After the Blues
he fundamental paralyzing fact of Jason Molina’s artistic career is work. Born and raised in the blue-collar factory-fed waste lands of West Virginia and Ohio, Molina has spent years trying to simultaneously escape and recreate that pitiless world of crushing responsibilities and inarticulate dreams, wanting to deserve that manfully stoic legacy without letting it imprison him.
It explains Molina’s restlessness, all those songs about the road, and the seemingly nonsensical name changes. It also explains the prolific output, the heroic touring jaunts, treating indie-rock like manual labor, punching in and out almost every single night.
Ultimately, it explains that newest name, Magnolia Electric Co.—an imagined factory all Molina’s own, one that requires constant vigilance just to keep the lights burning.
Which doesn’t leave much room or time for joy (maybe it’s the voice—the singer nobody likens to Molina who nonetheless he often conjures is Eddie Vedder, and I’ll never forget Ann Powers’ somewhat-derisive summation of my then-beloved Pearl Jam in the 1995 Spin Alternative Record Guide as caretakers of a “difficult project”).
True, What Comes After the Blues is no different from Molina’s past records in its absence of elation, but there’s more to it than that. As Molina has become better known and presumably more successful, it seems he’s become even more duty-bound, success breeding greater, and graver, responsibilities.
That means none of the singular starkness of Didn’t It Rain, none of the weirdness of Ghost Tropic, and precious little of the poetic possession that marked Songs: Ohia’s entire body of work, especially its apparent swan song, Magnolia Electric Co..
Molina’s also dramatically reined in the jams here, first kicked out on MEC and perhaps taken to their logical end on the early-’05 live release Trials and Errors, an album roundly criticized for mimicking Neil Young, that nonetheless crackled with tension, passion, and yes, electricity. “The Dark Don’t Hide It” (also featured on Trials and Errors) offers a charged, retributive opener here, but Molina scarcely revisits that energy, preferring a more muted, melancholy tone that drags in places and only truly transcends with the mournful horns and minor chords of “Leave the City.”
What we’re left with instead is this, a gimmick-free, wholly pious rendering of spiritual isolation and real physical toil. Industry chokes out our very lives while beauty vainly strains to get through, and the inevitable collision can be overwhelming—when Molina remembers “I have seen the North Star / Shining in the freight yards” on “Leave the City,” he invokes Jimmie from Stephen Crane’s hardscrabble classic Maggie, who likewise opined “deh moon looks like hell, don’t it?”
Conceptually, What Comes After the Blues can be brilliant. The unfeeling terseness of the absent (father?) figure described in “Hard to Love a Man” is echoed in the mantra-like brevity of the actual lyrics themselves. Even better-conceived (if not executed) is “The Night Shift Lullaby”—Jennie Benford’s affected vocal is overly beholden to Emmylou Harris, but what’s more important is the simple fact that Molina has her singing the song of a weary working man rather than delivering it himself, implying the guy is too damn tired to even sing his own blues.
Rhetorical tricks aside, the lyrics here lack the self-indicting punch that made MEC so unflinchingly great. Nobody wrote a better set of lines in 2003 than “everything you hated me for / Honey there was so much more / I just didn’t get busted,” but that honesty is mostly missing from the naturalistic paradigms here. No “midnight with the dead moon in its jaw” either, just Molina and the hard-hat crew passing each other in the dead of night, one bound for a double shift, the other for back-to-back shows, trying to extract some meaning the other’s not been fortunate enough to find.