Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
Last month, American folk music lost one of its best songwriters to a vice all too common to musicians: alcohol. Jason Molina was a constant on the music scene for the better part of fifteen years, putting out over a dozen albums between solo releases and his two bands, Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.
Actually, I haven’t listened to all that much of his music. Sure, he would pop up here and there on Pandora, and I think I have a mix from like 2009 with two or three of his songs on it, but it wasn’t until he died that I began to really listen to Molina.
His music is great, really great, and it’s streaming for free on Magnolia Electric Co’s Web site. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve listened to Molina as much as I can take. I can’t handle too much. My heart aches when he sings.
Molina reminds me of Elliot Smith (another great musician who left too soon) in the sense that there is absolute desolation in his voice. Molina and Smith have wounded souls. But Elliot Smith just kind of bums me out while Molina’s songs don’t just lament, but include a hint of longing hopefulness. Although clearly beaten down, there are glimmers of expectation in Molina’s songs. He doesn’t have much of it, hence the desolation, but he is looking. In “Hammer Down,” Molina has left us a song of longing and pain, with just enough hope to make him human:
Hammer down/ heaven bound/ I saw the light in the old grey town/ sometimes I forget that I’ve always been sick/ and I don’t have the will to keep fightin’ it
He wants salvation from himself. He has an artist’s sensitivity, and he can feel the brokenness seeping into every crack. He feels powerless, maybe because of his addiction to alcohol. The disgrace of relapse and the cycle of escapism and haunting shame fight with the desire to do good, to be good. But sin (maybe he called it something else), would not let him. And that exhausted him.
I can relate to Molina. Molina’s alcoholism, the addiction that took his life, was just a way to try to cope with the fallen world. He knew full well that it was not true hope. Like Molina, we are all confronted with a world so marred by the curse of sin that at times it seems to be nothing more than a catastrophe continuing every day by some damned accident of nature.
But Molina wanted redemption. He almost expected it, so it seems. In his last ever EP, on the track “Hear My Heart,” he sings: “If I can open my eyes/ this feather and my life will fly, fly.” I hear this as a hope in greater things to come. I don’t think Molina was a Christian but he was right where the Christian finds himself when confronted with the reality of brokenness. Dare I say, maybe we should aspire to come to the end of ourselves like Molina did? He was looking outside of himself for salvation, and he didn’t even pretend that he could solve all of his problems on his own.
God only redeems those who know they need to be redeemed. And in the transparent and sensitive conscience of an artist, we find the full weight of sin. Only Jesus can bear that weight, and only Jesus offers us the hope that can hold on through the calamity of our world. The true hope is all that could’ve saved Molina from himself, and it is all that will save us from ourselves. Sure, maybe we will find another way to cope with it—greed, apathy, or delusions of grandeur—but unless we’re rescued, the darkness will come. Thank God that there was an actual rescue.
I love Jason Molina’s work because he shows us what we need to be saved from. I wish he’d held on a little longer, but life isn’t fair. When I listen to Molina, I think about the present darkness that we all, without exception, fight against. And then I remember Jesus, the tangible, true hope of the world.