Listen! Long Dark Blues: Magnolia Electric Co. Turns 20

Posted: by The Editor

A couple weeks ago, I spent a rainy Saturday reading up on the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. I sat in my room, eyes glued to videos of freight cars lyng on their sides like prehistoric giants mired in a tar pit; of massive gray clouds engulfing the sky and shrouding the buildings below; of the Ohio River lustrous with oil runoff, carrying dead fish downstream. A lot of these videos were set to fuzzy, slowed-down, isolated vocal recordings of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Mostly though, I watched them with the sound off. On my speaker in the background, the late Jason Molina sang over a meandering lap steel, “This whole place is dark / every light on this side of the town / suddenly it all went down.

“Farewell Transmission” is one of greatest album openers of all time. If it were the closer, it would be one of the greatest album closers of all time, all hellos and goodbyes (mostly goodbyes). It ushered in the simultaneous retirement of the Songs: Ohia project and the debut of Molina’s new band, Magnolia Electric Co. (whether it’s the latter’s self-titled debut or the former’s swan song remains contested), and retroactively acts as Molina’s goodbye to the mortal world almost exactly a decade before he’d end up leaving it. He opens the record breathing in the ashes of a dying world: “Now we’ll all be brothers of the fossil fire of the sun / Now we’ll all be sisters of the fossil blood of the moon.” Nothing can be destroyed, only changed. I watched smoke rise above the derailed cars in thick plumes as the fires raged on. They called it a controlled burn, but they weren’t really getting rid of anything. The remnants had to go somewhere. 

Molina doesn’t just begin with the end on “Farewell Transmission,” at least not without telling us a bit about how we got there. It’s a funeral dirge chronicling a slow, collective death march through years of constant creation, the consequences of industrialization laid bare (“Now they’ll be working in the cold gray rock / Now they’ll be working in the hot mill steam / Now they’ll be working in the concrete”). It’s the fall of something, but that something didn’t just spring up from nothing only to become nothing again. If only it were that simple. Molina admits this much, intoning, “I will be gone but not forever” and immortalizing himself in song. “Farewell Transmission”–and much of Magnolia Electric Co. as a whole–exists in a sort of limbo, with Molina acting as a psychopomp guiding the listener into an unknowable eternity. His truce with death is an uneasy one, following a long fight with an even longer inevitable aftermath.

Real truth about it is / No one gets it right / Real truth about it is / We’re all supposed to try,” he sings, both resigned and affirmed in his belief that there’s value in striving towards an impossible ideal. As the song (and the life encased within it) nears its end, Molina’s narrative authority suffers a momentary breakdown, revealing his own frailty as he cries out, “Mama, here comes midnight / With the dead moon in its jaws / Must be the big star about to fall.” Like all of us, he’s cosmically powerless to the perpetual progression of everything that has happened and everything that’s yet to come. All he can do is try, play us out, and sing with the choir before they’re swallowed up by the long dark blues.  

Magnolia Electric Co.’s statements on the human condition aren’t always apocalyptically huge. Sometimes they’re quiet and minuscule, zeroing in on small, universally insignificant (but intimately urgent) matters that are–for better or worse–within our own control. On the breakup ballad “Riding With the Ghost,” a phantasmal Greek chorus vocalizes like wind whistling through trees while Molina asks for unlikely absolution. “None of them would love me if they thought they might lose me,” he sings, his voice a lone lantern in a dark, haunted forest. His head-on confrontation with his past is necessary to change the course of his future; there’s no guarantee that he’ll get it right, but like all of us, he’s supposed to try. On the following “Just Be Simple,” Molina tries to take his own titular advice, but blurs the lines between his own choices and the indifferent whims of the universe, and views fate’s infrequent moments of mercy with spite: “If Heaven’s really coming back / I hope it has a heart attack.” Among his human foibles is the tendency to forget just how helplessly human he really is. After all, this is the same guy who, when confronted with Death just two songs earlier, spat back, “I’ll streak his blood across my beak.” Molina sheepishly thanks the personified darkness that looms over him for tossing him the occasional small victory, though they’re only fractions of an unattainable wish: to return to a simpler time before he felt the weight of his own mistakes stacked against him. Death’s shadow is never far away; on the sinister, dead-of-winter lament “Almost Was Good Enough,” it stands behind Molina, tempting him with eternal solace over a rumbling snare. He embodies its voice as it taunts him for his fleeting belief in the universe’s kindness. The refrain of “Did you really believe that everyone makes it out? / Almost no one makes it out?” seems to mock earlier “No one gets it right / We’re all supposed to try”–sentiments of last-ditch optimism. 

Molina’s decision to take a backseat on the next two tracks and hand the lead vocals over to session singers Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett is a testament to the album’s throughline of collective misery. Peters’s crooning brings the fiddle-forward slow-dance “Old Black Hen” to an almost celebratory conclusion, as he invites all to sing along to the “Bad Luck Lullaby,” a song-within-a-song that rocks the cradle, lowers the casket, and never misses a beat in between. In contrast with Peters’ sorrow-drowning bass, Scout Nibblett’s lilting soprano winds its way around “Peoria Lunch Box Blues,” another lament that recognizes suffering as a universal lifeblood that runs through all of us. Much like the “long dark blues,” the “nobody’s blues” are everybody’s blues, unknowable and known to all. 

After the sparse and airy “Peoria Lunch Box Blues,” the opening riff and kick-drum hits of “John Henry Split My Heart” come crashing in with the strength of the legendary “steel-driving man” himself. When Molina repurposes the “Farewell Transmission” outro, it’s a reminder of a never-ending cycle. John Henry swings his hammer, drifter drills hollow out tunnels, shining steel railways snake their way through displaced rock, trains rumble across the tracks as they rust and warp, a train carrying over 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride lurches off its course and poisons a small town just 100 miles from where where Jason Molina grew up, the long dark blues roll on. 

As the album draws to a close, an engine light emerges from its tunnel, growing closer and brighter as it nears. “Hold On Magnolia” is the final spot of moonlit hope before the darkness overtakes Molina. Caught in a lightning strike between the death of an old world and the creation of a new one, he finds a threshold of peace that he’s spent an album and a lifetime struggling to attain. There’s a stillness before the train departs for a destination that hasn’t yet risen from the ashes of the one it’s leaving behind.

Molina’s hypothesis as to what that destination might be comes in the form of “The Big Game Is Every Night.” This labyrinthian 10-minute bonus track imagines the post-apocalyptic (which, if Magnolia Electric Co. has taught us anything, also means pre-apocalyptic) birth of a new world as a time-traveling baseball game. “It’ll get so quiet when the record ends,” he murmurs, in a moment of godly fourth-wall-breaking, “You can hear the first hour of the world.” That first hour sees Molina making a “let there be light” proclamation in hopes that it will illuminate the path to the most righteous version of himself–“Let it be me helping / Let it be me honestly / Let it be me working on being a better me”–as well as a baseball diamond that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Molina drafts famous musicians and politicians, literary and sports heroes, to play on his home team, and the bases track the lineages of folk, country, and rock ‘n roll that eventually led to the very song that he’s singing. It’s the kind of ambitious, esoteric, and so plainly human songwriting that solidifies Molina’s legacy with every passing year. You can hear it in countrygaze MVPs Wednesday and MJ Lenderman, whose fuzzy southern rock vignettes christen junkyards holy ground; in the sludgy, sprawling tales of Americana in decay from Rust Belt doomers Cloakroom and Greet Death; in up-and-coming alt-country web-weavers like Labrador, Grave Saddles, and Dialup Ghost. Molina set up the big game at the dawn of man, now a new generation of heavy-hitters are stepping up to bat. 

The decade that followed Magnolia Electric Co.’s release saw Molina in a downward spiral, eventually culminating in his death from multiple-organ failure. Now, ten years after the long long dark blues finally caught up with him, the great highway moon still shines on and echoes of the station bell still ring out. The train keeps rolling along on its infinite, looping track, carrying its lonesome travelers through the tunnel of oblivion into whatever might come next.


Grace Robins-Somerville | @grace_roso

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