Album Review: Jason Molina - Eight Gates
He starts to say, “The perfect take doesn’t exist,” but he stops short, and instead, says, “The perfect take is just as long as the person singing is still alive.”
I will be gone, but not forever…
I look my boss in the eyes, near the end of the conversation we’re having about Jason Molina, and I tell her there’s a reason the name of the biography published about him was titled Riding With The Ghost.
I’m getting ready to leave work for the day, heading into my ‘weekend.’ My boss, and friend, Andrea, asks me what I’m doing with my days away, and I tell her mostly chores, as always, but that I have some album reviews I need to begin focusing on. She inquires as to what I’ll be writing about, and I tell her the first is The Avalanche, from Mike Kinsella’s Owen, and the second is the posthumously released ‘final’ studio recording from Jason Molina.
Andrea doesn’t so much wince at the sound of Molina’s name, but the utterance does have an effect; not because she doesn’t him, or his records released under the Songs: Ohia or Magnolia Electric Company names, but simply because she knows how this story ends. “Jason Molina means a lot to me,” I tell her.
“I know,” she responds.
“When I listen to him now, it’s like he’s a ghost, trying to talk to me.”
I will be gone, but not forever…
In two years, I will be as old as Jason Molina was when he died in March of 2013—found dead in his Indianapolis apartment, the cause of death determined as multiple organ failure from a tumultuous decade of alcoholism, relocations, and multiple, and ultimately futile, attempts to stay sober.
In the biography, Riding With The Ghost, there are implications that even after Molina stopped performing publicly in 2009, he still wrote songs and recorded them with home equipment at various points within the final three years of his life. The book implies that Molina’s longtime label, Secretly Canadian, is in possession of theses recordings, and they might see the light of day if they deemed to be of any kind of quality at all.
Leaving the Midwest behind him, Molina and his wife, in the mid 2000s, relocated to London. Riding With The Ghost depicts this is a difficult time of isolation for Molina, where the pacing of his slide into alcoholism began to quicken, and he often wandered the city alone. Recorded at the beginning of 2009 at New Air Studios, and considered to be his ‘final’ solo recordings committed in a proper studio, Molina’s label has chosen now—11 years after the sessions, and seven years after his death, to unearth Eight Gates, a sparse, spectral collection of nine fragmented songs that blur the line between sketches and completion, and if anything, serve as a stark reminder that even when he was still alive, a Jason Molina song will haunt the hell out of you.
Much like the man himself, who spent a bulk of his active years (and inadvertently his inactive years as well) building a mystery and mythology around himself, his persona, and his music, there are traces of that within the songs found on Eight Gates. By all accounts, based on the information made available about Molina in both Riding With The Ghost, as well as around the time that the Songs: Ohia album The Lioness was reissued in late 2018, prior to his early 2000s descent into alcoholism, he was a relatively likable, if not a little problematic1, guy from the Midwest who was a bit of a goofball, and often spun tall tales—an element to his mythology that he carried with him until the end. The press materials for Eight Gates suggest that at the time, he was recovering from a bite sustained by a poisonous spider, though there are no records indicating this was something that actually happened to him.
And for someone who was, at one point in their life, a goofball, or at least had an easy going sense of humor about them, his music never really reflected that. Almost always sparse and ramshackle, the Songs: Ohia canon is dark—both in tone and lyrically; the Magnolia Electric Company output—a staggering streak of prolificacy running from 2003 until 2009, took a step in a more electrified, raucous direction. Arguably, it was almost always Molina’s words, and the fragile way he delivered them (within both of his projects, as well as the two solo albums he released before his passing) that would wind up being the ‘focus’ when you listened to him. Often bleak and abstract, his lyricism stops short of being ‘poetry,’ and if you spend enough time with it, you can find the ways it is connected through recurring imagery, delivered to you in fever-dream like fragments.
Eight Gates walks a number of lines: arriving so long after both its initial recording (and subsequent shelving), as well as Molina’s passing, it comes off a little like a cash grab—Secretly Canadian willingly taking money from the wallets of a captive audience; its soundscape and structure are seemingly uncertain if it is a proper ‘album,’ or simply a collection of ideas, some of which are exponentially more developed; and the way the album is presented lends itself to furthering Molina’s mythology. There are, save for production and subsequent editing credits on the back of the sleeve, no additional liner notes that shed any light onto these sessions—it’s a Molina solo album in the sense that it’s credited to him, rather than a ‘band,’ but there are additional players featured in the mix, including percussion and string instruments. However, there is no information to be found on who these performers might be.
It’s an album, or a collection of fragments, that simply exists—lost, for a while, or forgotten about, but it captures a very controlled and contained moment in time.
I will be gone, but not forever…
When Eight Gates works, it really works; when it doesn’t, it isn’t unlistenable or even uninteresting. It, at times, simply just fails to connect completely, and simply lingers like the dark, spectral shadow that it is.
Along all of the other lines it treads, the more time you spend with the album, it becomes easier to see how it tries to balance a dichotomy between patience and restlessness—the end result being incredibly tense, and intense. There is a sense of urgency with which the songs were recorded—like, even in the state of decline he was in at this point, Molina needed to get these songs out of him, and on to tape; however, they, themselves, are not urgent at all. They burn slowly—and perhaps because of the way Eight Gates is presented, this is an unfair statement to make, but these songs may burn the slowest of his entire canon. They really need a lot of time, and even then, after you’ve given them time, there is a question of diminishing returns, and just how essential they are within the body of work.
Recorded with presumable haste, though uncertain how these songs were really written, Eight Gates does lend itself to familiar Molina tropes, even before visual artist Will Schaff put together the sleeve art for the album. Birds have always played a very large metaphorical role in Molina’s body of work, but here, they are very literal, not just stopping with the artwork—field recordings of birds are inserted at the album’s opening, and again later on. Surprisingly, the lyrical usage of birds is kept to a minimum, but other very familiar Molina imagery of moons, lanterns and bells, loneliness, a crossbow, and of course, the ‘emptiness,’ are featured in the album’s disjointed lyrics.
And perhaps the most important recurring theme from Molina’s work appears here as well, though unintentionally mentioned. The idea of ‘trying’ runs throughout his canon, most obviously beginning with the inception of the Magnolia Electric Company and the song “Farewell Transmission.” On Eight Gates, in an excerpt of studio chatter included within the album, prior to the album’s final track, “The Crossroad + The Emptiness,” after asking those in the studio with him to be quiet, he stammers, “Thank you for trying…trying it out the other way.”
Musically, overall, Eight Gates is an album that ruminates; it’s extremely meditative, and the overcast nature of opening track, “Whisper Away,” with its distended, electric guitar strumming and haunting strings howling, really help set that tone—the juxtaposition of melancholy, fragility, and something completely grim in Molina’s voice also assist in creating a bleak, ominous aesthetic. And maybe the simple fact that this sat in a vault somewhere for 11 years, and has been released after its artist has long since passed, that gives credibility to that bleak feeling. Perhaps if this had been issued in 2009, even with the state Molina was in at the time, it would arrive ‘feeling’ like a different album.
I hesitate to say the ruminating, meditative nature of the album makes some songs ‘meander,’ because that simply isn’t true; however, there are moments on Eight Gates that have much more direction, or focus, than others. The album’s second track—featuring steady, shuffling percussion and a quiet, eerie organ drown underneath the muted electric guitar strums, “Shadows Answer The Wall,” is probably the most structured on the album. The songs here lack (and maybe this is an okay thing) the sprawling, self-indulgent, stream of conscious storytelling nature that a lot of his work near the end of Songs: Ohia and the beginning of Magnolia Electric had, as well as the first Molina solo album, the desolate 2004 release, Pyramid Electric Company. Eight Gates, musically and tonally, finds itself somewhere in between the conjured feeling of that record, but not as hopeless and dejected as his 2007 solo effort, the incredibly wounded and broken Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go.
For an album with the feeling of urgency in how it was recorded (though ultimately disregarded as Molina personally fell apart throughout 2009), there is more than once throughout Eight Gates where there is the suspicion of things appearing unfinished—again, walking the line of a sketch and completion. As the album’s first side comes to an end, both the minimalist, glitchy “Old Worry” and the sparse, acoustic “She Says,” especially the latter, feel like real fragments, or ideas that there was intention to develop more.
The inclusion of studio chatter prior to “She Says” also lends credibility to the idea that these songs were nowhere near finished even as Molina entered into recording them. “Roll me for a few minutes here and see what I get here,” he says before the first strum of the guitar.
The second half of the album is even more skeletal with its ideas, and the way they are presented. The ominous, dark processing of the guitar on “Fire on The Rail” makes it a standout, but a bulk of the songs that follow it are too brooding, too meditative, and allow space for too much rumination.
I will be gone, but not forever…
Two of the myriad ideas and themes that Molina explored that I have carried with me over the last eight years are that of the ‘emptiness’ (and also debilitating depression), and his preoccupation with an ‘ending.’
Ambitious and audacious, the lengthy, spiraling opening track on the Magnolia Electric Company album is named “Farewell Transmission,” and it includes one of the most lingering Molina lyrics: “I will be gone, but not forever.” On the ‘final’2 Songs: Ohia album, the hypnotic refrain to “Blue Factory Flame” is the phrase, “Paralyzed by the emptiness,” repeated over and over again.
Molina, in the effort to connect these songs to others in his catalog, returns to these specific, recurring themes with the desolate closing track, aptly titled “The Crossroad + The Emptiness,” as well as “The Mission’s End,” the third piece on Eight Gates—by far the best song on the album, and the one can be pulled from the set, and stand on its own.
With the stark, foreboding tone that the second half of the album takes, “The Crossroad” is a fitting closing track; it’s also the most self-aware, which is a device that, as a songwriter, Molina did not use all that often. “Sundown, December 30,” he begins, referencing his birthday that had, according to the ‘recorded January 2009’ written on the back of the album sleeve, just passed. “Though given one, I have no wish. I feel the dread as you re-read my palms,” he continues.
“The Crossroad + The Emptiness” is probably the most lyrically evocative, or at the very least, one of the songs that lingers with you the longest long after you’ve finished listening. It’s sparse and fragmented, and more than a little unnerving, as he continues: “Remember, I showed you the scarecrow’s heart; The crossroad and the emptiness. Remember, we were the nameless ones—not the loneliest.”
There is really no way for there to be, given how the album was recorded and released so many years later, but the unnerving feeling of “The Crossroad” leaves no room at all for any kind of resolve to the loosely connected, but very palpable tension, stretched across these songs. It is probably the album’s most desolate, harrowing moment—not a ‘cry for help,’ because Molina was well beyond that at this point in his descent, but it is a cry never the less.
Barely over two minutes in length, “The Mission’s End” is probably one of Eight Gates’ most structured songs, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that makes it so listenable, casually, and able to be removed from the insular nature of the project. There’s a very clear melody that Molina tries to follow with his lyrics, and the way he carefully, deliberately, and fragilely places them over the top of his recklessly strummed, hollow sounding acoustic guitar.
Lyrically, it is surprisingly the most hopeful, or at least borderline optimistic when compared to the rest of the downcast, fragmented outlook the rest of this album boasts—playing against type for Molina. The imagery, of course, is very ambiguous and shadowy, but against the trembling flame he describes in the opening line, he follows that with “Built it all against tears…built it all against the smallest fears.”
Even with as hopeful as it might come across, though, “The Mission’s End” is just as sparse, lyrically, as the rest of the is album. Throughout, there are no real verses or refrains—and that’s incredibly clear here, as Molina repeats these words at the conclusion of the song, like an epilogue: “This at the mission’s end….we’re all equal along this path.”
It oddly enough, recorded at a time of personal uncertainty for Molina, and released now during a time of worldwide uncertainty, provides a small amount of reassurance—a strange feeling to have, right now, but also a strange feeling to be on the receiving end of when listening to this album, or any album by Jason Molina.
It’s a bit of an ‘in-joke,’ as subtly macabre as it comes off being, that the editors of Eight Gates left in the studio chatter before the beginning of “She Says.” Before the first strum of the guitar, he starts to say, “The perfect take doesn’t exist,” but he stops short, and instead, says, “The perfect take is just as long as the person singing is still alive.”
Eight Gates is a difficult album. Calling it an ‘album’ is even being generous. At less than a half hour in length, it could have been pressed onto one side of a standard 12” vinyl record, as opposed to two, with nearly as much dead wax leading into the center label as there is content etched into the circular grooves. It captures a moment—an artifact, of sorts, that takes you back over a decade, to the beginning of the end for a beloved, mythologized, and lamented singer and songwriter. And it’s a difficult record simply because it asks, or at least is contextually created with more questions than it ever can provide answers. It leaves so much to be desired, but I think that’s the point, in the end—another faint whisper from a ghost that regularly speaks to me.
Whenever there is a posthumously released album, especially one issued so long after the artist’s demise, one has to wonder who the intended audience for something like this is. Is it for the Molina completist? Eight Gates, sparse and spectral, and possibly unfinished, is not the kind of album designed to attract new fans to the work of Jason Molina. And even longtime fans, such as myself, are left scratching their head once the record ends, wondering what, if any, purpose this experience served. You can take more time to learn the quiet complexities of it, and listen to the songs a little more, and a little harder, but it is the kind of thing that that will not warrant many return listens after that—certainly not the kind of ‘go-to’ records like Didn’t it Rain? or The Magnolia Electric Company.
Eight Gates makes a strong argument for just letting things be—of questionable quality and completion, this could have been left in the Secretly Canadian archives, with fans focusing on what Molina had already given to us before his passing, rather than what he didn’t, or chose not to. There is a thrill, albeit a small one, to hearing ‘new’ material from his iconic, delicate voice, but this is of exponential diminishing returns.
Jason Molina is still a ghost, who still tries to talk to me.
He will be gone; but not forever.
1- I just wanted to briefly talk about the volatile dynamic between Molina and his wife Darcie. The book, Riding With The Ghost, depicts some of his behavior during the early days of their courtship as a little unsettling and toxic; and after he succumbed to his demons from alcoholism, he began treating her very poorly. They were estranged at the time of his death, and I am uncertain, off hand, how long they were ‘estranged’ for.
2- There’s always been confusion and contention about if Didn’t it Rain? is the final Songs: Ohia album, or if the Magnolia Electric Company is the final Songs: Ohia album. I look at Magnolia Electric as the debut, self-titled album from a different Molina fronted project; others disagree, and suggest that it’s the final Songs: Ohia record, and that What Comes After The Blues is the first Magnolia Electric album. I don’t think Molina ever really specified one way or the other.