Best of 2020: 22. Jason Molina ‘Eight Gates’

I wish this album didn’t exist. It seems unlikely that it would have made it to release in this form were it not for the fact that Jason Molina died in 2013. Recorded in London during January 2009, it was the last studio session he would undertake and started a year that would end with a last minute cancellation of a planned tour with Will Johnson to promote their superlative collaboration ‘Molina  and Johnson’. Thereafter, little was heard of Molina until, in 2011, a family message was shared by his label, Secretly Canadian, that he was seriously ill and had been attending rehabilitation facilities. The confirmation of his alcoholism didn’t come until two years later, when the news of Molina’s passing brutally punctured an early spring day for many.

eight gates

I don’t know many people who quite like Molina. If his music clicks, it’s hard not to end up with most of it. There was always a Neil Young echo in there, whether on stark, acoustic beauties or the more full-bodied country-blues of much of his work as Magnolia Electric Co., but his voice is distinctive and oddly resonant. No matter the intensity of the backdrop, it can cut through from anywhere and command the room. The album ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’, technically the final album by his previous band Songs: Ohia, was when I first became aware of his work and almost all of his catalogue is in the space where I am currently writing this. Box sets, reissues and even Record Store Day 7″s are must buys, savouring every last bit of his output in the knowledge that it is finite.

The announcement of ‘Eight Gates’ came after the release of a lo-fi recording of ‘Live At La Chapelle’ from 2005 hinted at the very faintest signs of barrel scraping beginning to occur. As a result, trepidation was instilled ahead of early listens to this brief album. But, over twenty-five minutes, these nine songs prove themselves to be well worthy of a standalone release. Box set padding they are not, instead evoking aspects of another UK-based project, ‘The Lioness’ from 2000. As Molina’s music so often did, it captures the sound and space of the studio across a mixture of solo acoustic pieces and those augmented with mournful strings and wide-panned, open drums.

‘Shadow Answers The Wall’ features that expansive percussive drive that was a familiar presence on many of his records, pared with a groping bass line that asserts an air of malevolence. It is somewhat at odds with the occasional bursts of birdsong that pepper the album in reference to several green parrots who frequented his yard at the time. That he would surely have never opted for such a recurring motif himself serves as a reminder that ‘Eight Gates’ arrives in memory of and not as the start of another chapter.

Understandably, it is possible to find oneself reading far too much into lyrics that were never designed to carry the weight of their eventual circumstances. Take ‘The Mission’s End’, which concludes “this at the mission’s end, we’re all equal along this path.” Tempting as one obvious interpretation might be, the latter phrase actually offered some light in the middle of 2020, Molina’s well-loved violin of a vocal emitting a unifying nod to humanity’s endurance.

‘She Says’ is demonstrably the product of an early studio run through, prefaced by the comment “roll me for a few minutes here; see what I get,” although the rest of the slightly too route one pre-song chat feels like a blunt instrument: “The perfect take is as long as the person singing is still alive. That’s really it.” ‘Fire On The Rail’ proceeds against a distant, driving hum and ‘Be Told The Truth’ is elevated by a droning, aching accompaniment.

What I would give for a fully realised new album by Molina, in any of his guises. This is more than just a nod to past glories, a clearing of the decks, but ‘Eight Gates’ is not quite a Jason Molina album in the conventional sense. Despite this, it is still a striking, satisfying and sometimes saddening listen. In this year of all years, considering what is missing is perhaps as important as knowing what is there.

Buy ‘Eight Gates’ on CD from Drift (Don’t buy the vinyl – it’s noisy or warped or both)