Endless, Endless - Songs: Ohia's Didn't it Rain? at 20
And, the thing is, I don’t remember this part of the book.
But I read this book, like, almost five years ago, and there were a lot of things about it I didn’t like, but perhaps it’s in there, somewhere. And maybe I breezed over it a little too quickly, or whatever, for it to resonate, or have been remembered. Or, perhaps, it’s because when I do think of the book, all I can think about are the surprising, though maybe not surprising, problematic details from a life, and then, that life’s end—the incredibly graphic, unflinching depiction of decline.
And if you search the internet for “Jason Molina” and “Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” putting both names in quotation marks, as I have done, really the only result of any substance is an old piece that ran on Spin’s website in December of 2014. I don’t remember this part of the book, but it is presented as an excerpt from Erin Osmon’s (then) yet to be published biography on Jason Molina—Riding With The Ghost.
This excerpt from Spin, published online in conjunction with the expanded reissue of Didn’t it Rain? at the very end of 2014, includes interviews with a handful of individuals who were involved with the recording and production of the album. The name of the album, and its opening, titular track, are, according to Osmon’s narrative, an apparent homage to the spiritual “Didn’t It Rain?,” which was popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1948.
And in this excerpt, Osmon attempts, as best as she is able when all she has to work with is the past, to build a connection between the two artists—but her connection, or at least in the way she executes it here, is extremely flimsy.
If you look at it as a question, it’s one that is never answered.
In Tharpe’s recording, the question, “Didn’t it rain?,” becomes less of a question and more of a declaration delivered over and over with hypnotic jubilance.
In Molina’s, the question, “Didn’t it rain?,” becomes even less of a question, and it is, by no means a declaration of any kind. It isn’t an afterthought, though, but when it’s uttered after the wordless howling of what operates as the song’s chorus, it is a mumbled, almost whispered aside to the listener.
A quiet observation.
It should not come as a surprise to hear there is nothing jubilant in how it’s said when the words, cloaked in a midwestern drawl, leave Molina’s mouth.
How many times, over the last nine years, has the name Jason Molina appeared in something I have written?
Mentioned as a point of reference when another artist shares similarities in sound—intentional or otherwise; the analysis of the handful of posthumous releases, various reissues, and a well-meant, albeit brief, tribute.
If you look at it as a question, it’s one that is never answered.
Didn’t it rain?
Though I am slightly uncertain, I feel like I was not aware of Sister Rosetta Tharpe until around three years ago, after I had extended an invitation to a friend of mine—a former co-worker—to be a guest on my then extremely fledgling podcast. And among the songs she had selected to speak with me about—songs or artists that had been important for her, or had impacted her life in some way, was Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Didn’t It Rain?.”
In the Wikipedia entry about her life and career, Tharpe is referred to as the “original soul sister,” and the “godmother of rock and roll.” Raised in the Church of God in Christ, she was introduced to the guitar at the age of four, and accompanied her mother as a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. At the age of 23, she began recording gospel songs backed by a jazz orchestra—apparently considered an “overnight sensation,” her Wikipedia entry also alleges she was one of the first commercially successful gospel recording artist, and that her recording of the song “Rock Me” would influence Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley1.
Tharpe is a fascinating figure in contemporary popular music for a number of reasons, and it is unfortunate, though maybe not surprising, that I had not heard of her until only a few years ago.
She’s considered a pioneer because of her guitar technique and was among one of the earliest popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar—a European tour with Muddy Waters in the mid-1960s is said to have had an influence on the rise of British Blues players, like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton2.
If you go on YouTube and search for Sister Rosetta Tharpe and “Didn’t it Rain?,” the first video that comes up—the video I watched three years ago in preparation for the interview with my former co-worker, is a black and white clip of Tharpe performing the song live in 1964 outside of a train station—an audience, primarily young and white, sits in bleachers clapping along, as best as they are able, to the rhythm. In her hands is white Les Paul Custom—she’s charismatic and theatrical as she sings, and the command she has over her instrument is impossible not to notice from the moment the video begins.
It’s all a little surprising, or startling at first, the numerous juxtapositions—she would have been in her late 40s when this performance was filmed; she wears a long, very formal overcoat, with the guitar positioned up high on her body. I hesitate to say it the instrument looks “out of place” on her, but through her attire and charisma, she is, simply, a sight. And even with how influential, or important of a figure she was—trying to bridge the space between secular and sacred music, often shocking other religious individuals while doing so—it speaks volumes of the appropriation of Black music by white artists, and the patriarchal nature of rock and roll as a genre, that the accomplishments of a Black, possibly queer3, woman, are not as well, or widely known as they should be, or that the name Sister Rosetta Tharpe does not come up more often in conversation.
Where Songs: Ohia ends and The Magnolia Electric Company begins is confusing—a weird gray area that is not so much a source of contention among his listeners, but rather, another element that adds to the mythology of Jason Molina’s life and music.
In an interview from 2006, recirculated after his death in 2013, Molina makes it clear the final Songs: Ohia album was Didn’t it Rain?, originally released in 2002—followed a year later by the first album from a new project—albeit a slight continuation of the old, The Magnolia Electric Company—the name he would primarily record under for the next six years.
Regardless of what name he preferred to record and release under during the years of transition, Molina’s longtime label, Secretly Canadian, did, and does still, market Magnolia Electric’s self titled debut as his final album under the Songs: Ohia name.
It’s convoluted, and in the end, perhaps a minor detail I often find myself becoming hung up on. Perhaps it is not as important, in the larger picture, as I believe it to be. And I think the reason I fixate on this, specifically when talking about both Didn’t it Rain? and The Magnolia Electric Company, is there is a very clear shift from one to the other.
One is decidedly and ending, or a conclusion; the other is a very obviously beginning.
Jason Molina began releasing albums under the Songs: Ohia name in the mid-1990s, and each of them, at least heading into Didn’t it Rain?, could be best described as a loose, ramshackle, lo-fi, indie-folk leaning sound—but upon arriving at Didn’t it Rain?, even if you have a very rudimentary, or casual, understanding of what the band sounded like prior, from the moment you first hear the enormity of his acoustic guitar strumming the titular song, it’s apparent the stakes for this album, sonically speaking, were much higher.
There is exponentially more focus on wanting something specific—something that the other albums did not have, and something that he, perhaps, did not know he was working toward until he arrived there.
Molina’s records, regardless of what name he was recording under, never seem lengthy, based on the amount of songs included on each. Didn’t it Rain?, at first glance, looks spry with its seven total songs. However, the album itself, as it unfolds, is anything but—the shortest track, an interlude of sorts tucked in as a reprieve prior to the finale, is a hair over two minutes; the longest song on the album, though, is stretched to nearly nine minutes.
Conceived, or at least tangentially intended, to be a reflection on both the rich history of the Blues from Chicago, and a pensive, stark meditation on the desolation of Molina’s experiences in the midwest, what I have come to understand now, listening for the first time with a critical, or analytical ear, is that Didn’t it Rain? is meant to be listened to as an uninterrupted whole—you can take certain pieces of it out here and there, yes, but the gravity of the album really reveals itself to you when you listen to the album from beginning to end.
And maybe I had known this already, or learned it when I was much younger, but it was when I was on an airplane, three years ago, with nothing beneath me, when reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, I learned, or possibly learned again and this time it stuck with me, that the word essay means “to try.”
And it might not have taken me five years to really realize it, but it took me five years to perhaps understand it, is that the idea of “trying”—the very notion of it, is a theme that ran throughout Jason Molina’s lyrics.
It is, of course, the most obvious in “Farewell Transmission,” the simmering, electrified, twangy, and sprawling opening track to The Magnolia Electric Company, where he sings, “I will try—and know whatever, I tried,” which he follows with one his most haunting lyrics, especially in the wake of his death—“I will be gone. But not forever.”
The idea of trying, less obvious but no less important, appears again in one of two albums he released under his own name—Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go, from 2007, when he was already deep in the throes of the alcoholism that would, in only a few years, claim his life. “No matter how hard we’re trying, he sings on “Everything Should Try Again,” “It’s not hard enough.”
Then, later in the album, on “Some Things Never Try”—“Some things never get better. Some things never try.”
And this idea—the idea of “trying,” and all it might mean, is not exactly a central theme throughout Didn’t it Rain?, but it is a concept that Molina introduces as the album gets underway.
I’ve spent roughly the last decade with Didn’t it Rain?, coming to it, and Molina, regrettably later than others, and when I sit down with an album that I, in a number of regards, know so well, but am listening to analytically, or critically, for the first time, it is always surprising what I take away from that experience—and how it might cause me to think, or understand the album, differently.
And what I have come to understand is while the opening track, “Didn’t it Rain?,” is one of Molina’s finest—there is nothing as objectively sweeping and as gorgeous to be found elsewhere as the album continues. And it doesn’t intentionally set the “wrong” tone—but it is not indicative of the tone from the other six songs that follow.
“Didn’t it Rain?” serves as a prologue for what will come—there is a slight darkness to it, sure, but it is not nearly as brooding, or as flat out desolate, as the tone Molina sets as the album begins to unfold.
And I guess, structurally speaking, across Didn’t it Rain?’s seven tracks, the album never really lightens in mood, but it is perhaps the heaviest, darkest shadow looms over its first half.
After a few kind of dissonant string plucks to create an introduction, there is something decidedly ominous about the first few actual guitar strums from the album’s second track—“Steve Albini’s Blues.” It is among the sparest in its instrumentation—or, at least in comparison to some of the other songs, it is at least the most hushed and spectral, barely bringing itself to rise above a kind of incanted tension that Molina and his assemblage of musicians have no desire to release.
And something that I perhaps might have understood from previous listens, but am now much more aware of, is the way Molina uses silence as an additional instrument. This kind of device, or technique, is the most noticeably executed on the second half of the record, but you can begin to detect notes of it “Steve Albini’s Blues” in the way he lets certain silences, or pauses, hang for just a little longer, adding to the creeping bleakness that is woven within the album’s fabric.
There is a storm, just at the edge, mentioned in “Didn’t it Rain?,” and musically, the storm begins to move in on “Steve Albini’s Blues,” plunging everything into darkness through the cavernous acoustic guitar strums, and the eerie plucked strings of the mandolin.
And that storm begins to stir—swirling, moving a little faster, once Didn’t it Rain?’s first side continues to gain momentum, with the pulsating, rootsy, swaying, and urgent “Ring The Bell,” with the low undercurrent of a homemade bass, courtesy of Mike Brenner, through the entirety of the song, creating not a sense of “menace,” but an uneasy feeling that never finds resolve even as the song finds its way to a natural conclusion—and it is in the way that Molina leads the band through the ending of “Ring The Bell,” into the last song on the album’s first side, “Cross The Road, Molina,” that I realized—this time, while listening analytically, that Didn’t it Rain? is meant to be consumed as a whole.
The two songs do not segue perfectly from one, into the other, but there is literally no breathing room between them. “Ring The Bell” ends, and with no real respite provided, there are a few plunks of the mandolin strings to ease the momentum and tempo down, and within less than 20 seconds, Molina plunges the band back into it. “Cross The Road” is exponentially slower—a dirge-like pace in comparison to what came before it, but it takes that undulation and urgency, and continues to stir it around ominously with the huge silences and pauses in between guitar strums, and the way the bowing of the low strings cut through the musical canvas.
The tone of Didn’t it Rain? doesn’t shift dramatically on the second side, but it is within the album’s latter half that a drum kit is introduced on two of the three songs—impressively keeping steady, and extraordinarily slow time, with the spaces in between the snare hits becoming an instrument of its own. And it is on “Blue Factory Flame,” pushing almost nine minutes, where the arranging and instrumentation becomes much less folksy, or rootsy, and is directed into a meditation, albeit a slightly meandering one, on the Blues.
Molina’s lyricism was rarely literal—his lyrics, throughout his body of work, were often shrouded in fragmented, ambiguous metaphors and symbolism—the moon, and animals—often those with wings and beaks—were the most common to appear regularly.
There is a bleak realism though to the phrases he turns on Didn’t it Rain?—specifically rooted in geography. Jason Molina was a product of the midwest; born in Oberlin, Ohio, he also lived in different parts of Indiana as well as Chicago. There is reflection of the desolation one can find in portions of the midwest found throughout Didn’t it Rain?—directly referenced in “Steve Albini’s Blues.” The title may be an extremely dry joke in reference to the famed recording engineer (with whom Molina would work with less than a year later) but the song itself creates an eerie, somber, hypnotic mantra through the repetition of the phrase, “On the bridge out of Hammond”—Hammond, Indiana, a blue-collar suburb outside of East Chicago, known for a shuttered steel mill along the short of the lake.
Vivid in its description of the Nine Span Bridge between Hammond and East Chicago, it is also a stark meditation on how your own intrusive thoughts creep in on a drive where you have little, if anything else, to consider—“Think about what’s darkening my life.”
“In the midwest’s witching hour,” he sings near the song’s end, blurring the line between himself, and what he sees passing from his drive across the bridge. “Watch the whole town eclipse.”
There is not a lot of hope to be found, lyrically speaking, across the board on Didn’t it Rain?, but a theme Molina returns to throughout is that of help, or assistance, though its first appearance is through the sneering lyrics of “Ring The Bell”—embittered and frustrated as they weave through the swaying give and take of the song’s mesmerizing, folksy rhythm. “Help does not just walk up to you,” he begins in the opening line. “I could have told you that—I’m not an idiot.”
And there is something that becomes increasingly manic, or desperate, in his lyricism here, but also in the way they are delivered—“Why wouldn’t I be trying to figure it out?,” he continues as “Ring The Bell” continues. “Everyone tells you not to quit—I can’t seem to fight it. If it looks like I’m not trying, I don’t care what it looks like.”
Like many songs in Molina’s canon, especially on Didn’t it Rain?, he side steps the traditional verse/chorus/verse structure for something much more sprawling and loose on “Ring The Bell”—it isn’t stream of consciousness, but in looking at the lyrics when written out, rather than heard within the context of the song, the way it unfolds has more in common with poetry than anything else.
“Ring The Bell,” before it spirals into more metaphorical imagery of animals like hounds and serpents, finds itself in bleak territory—“If there’s a way out, it will be step by step through the black…Why wouldn’t I be trying to figure it out,” Molina implores again. “It don’t mean I’m not trying if I don’t make it back.”
And, similar to the way these songs are intended to be taken as a whole, and the way “Ring The Bell” slowly winds down before trickling right into “Cross The Road, Molina,” there are lyrical callbacks, or references, at times, creating an insular, self-aware, foreboding feeling. On “Cross The Road,” Molina makes mention of the “Blue Chicago moon,” which is the title of the album’s final track; he also implores near the end of the song, “Set my pulse, an electric pulse—set my pulse to the blues. Them sad black eyes.” And perhaps it is because, over 3,000 words into this reflection on Jason Molina and Didn’t it Rain?, I am possibly reaching, or making something out of where there is clearly nothing, but it is interesting, at least while I have been listening within an analytical context, that he asks for an electric pulse, and for his pulse to be set to “the blues,” specifically based on what happens when the second half of the album begins with the sprawling, Blues oriented “Blue Factory Flame.”
There are indications throughout Molina’s songwriting hat he was not exactly fixated or had a preoccupation with his own mortality, but he was at least aware of it, and as his health and wellbeing worsened in the mid-2000s, it becomes more obvious—but there is something extremely grim about the reflections on both death and despair on “Blue Factory Flame,” which is why it, at least from a writing standpoint, is one of the most compelling.
The opening “verse” alone is a lot to unpack—“When I die, put my bones in an empty street,” Molina begins. “To remind me how it used to be. Don’t write my name on stone—bring a Coleman lantern and a radio; a Cleveland game and two fishing poles, and watch me from the shore. Ghostly steel and iron ore, ships coming home.”
Incredibly stark, it is a thematic return to the bleakness and industrial nature of Molina’s midwest, which he continues to ruminate on as the song continues. “I fly the cross of the blue factory flame, stitched with heavy sulfur thread. The ain’t proud colors, but they’re true—colors of my home.” Though, as the song continues to slowly unravel itself (it is the longest on the album, almost nine minutes) it is the way he lets his voice rise, fall, and hang on what serves as the chorus—one of the most memorable phrases across the entirety of Didn’t it Rain?—“Where I am paralyzed by the emptiness.”
And it is the way he uses the word “endless” six times that has stuck with me the most—the thing my mind most often returns to when I think about Songs: Ohia and Didn’t it Rain?.
How would you describe your depression?
In the past, when I have been asked, I describe depression—when it has been extremely severe—as the feeling of being completely immobilized, and being strangled. Like something that I cannot see has wrapped its enormous hands around my throat, and is slowly—deliberately—squeezing tighter and tighter.
Squeezing until I am unable to breathe.
Until all I can see, and feel, is a darkness.
For the longest time, before I came around to Jason Molina on my own, one of the only things I knew about him—and I still think about this now, actually, pretty regularly—is how mercurial of a live performer he could be, especially the further he slid into alcoholism.
When I was in college, I had a friend who was a few years younger than me, and he had been introduced to a lot of bands via his older brother’s tastes; bands that, at the time, I had never even heard of—the kind of stuff Pitchfork was covering in the very early 2000s, like The Notwist, Broken Social Scene, and Songs: Ohia.
This friend had tried, not all that hard, to get me into Songs: Ohia, or at least had mentioned Jason Molina to me a handful of times, and in doing so, he recalled an anecdote about Molina’s unpredictable temperament on stage. One instance involved a performance where, as it was described to me, Molina ended the show early because he seemed simply too depressed to perform; the other instance involved Molina more or less antagonizing the audience, believing that they were undeserved of his performance4.
How would you describe your depression?
Molina’s mental health is not referenced—at least that I recall, in Riding With The Ghost. He and his wife had relocated a few times, both throughout the midwest and, for awhile, abroad in London, and this time was depicted as one of loneliness and isolation for him—factors that contributed to his descent into alcoholism, but depression, or any kind of overwhelming sadness, is never mentioned.
There is an overwhelming sadness, though, the further you get into his work—the two albums he released under his own name are both incredibly bleak and sorrowful, and it is a sadness, or an endless depression—“The Blues,” if you will, that are at the core of Didn’t it Rain’s final, astounding moment, “Blue Chicago Moon.”
Musically, “Blue Chicago Moon” shares a lot in common with “Blue Factory Flame.” I mean, the song titles are obviously very similar, but both songs are built around a very slow, steady rhythm coming from the drum kit where there are just enormous pauses and silences that simply hang in the ether, and both feature Molina’s slow motion, distorted take on Blues guitar playing.
“Blue Chicago Moon,” lyrically, has little to do with the industrial, desolate midwest that is depicted elsewhere on the record. Instead, it leans heavily into the animal iconography Molina would favor—birds, specifically—the further his career went on, and it is the one song on Didn’t it Rain? where there is any flicker of hope to be found, returning to that idea of “help.”
“But if the blues are your hunter, you will come face to face with that darkness and desolation,” he sings near the end of the song. “And the endless, endless, endless, endless, endless, endless depression. But you are not helpless…try to beat it.” Then, he assures later on, “I’ll help you to try—try to beat it.”
How would you describe your depression?
It is hypnotic—similar to the way Molina carries his voice on the line, “Paralyzed by the emptiness,” it’s incredible how he mesmerizes the listener by uttering one word six times, but it builds such a powerful momentum. And it’s a song where there is no tension and release—it’s not even all of one, and none of the other. It’s just an unrelenting stream, and if you aren’t listening closely, you’ll miss the set up, and then what he actually describes as being so endless.
And it’s when you go back, and listen to the lines leading up to the repetition of the word “endless,” that the sheer volume of this moment in the song hits you, and is simply unforgettable.
Perhaps even more enthusiastic and jubilant than how Sister Rosetta Tharpe asks the question, “Didn’t it rain?, is the way that Mahalia Jackson phrases it.
Jackson’s recording of the song, “Didn’t it Rain?,” arrived around six years after Tharpe’s, and it doesn’t do away with the rock and roll aesthetic completely, but it strips away the jaunty, ramshackle nature of Tharpe’s quick guitar picking, favoring instead gospel piano. In the studio recording of her iteration, Jackson isn’t rigid, but she is not giving into the theatricality and power her voice is certainly capable of—it’s very formal, or proper; but that is something she is willing to let go of in the live performance captured for her Live at Newport 1958 album.
Is Didn’t it Rain? a gospel album? Sonically, and structurally, it is a night and day difference from the claustrophobic, lo-fi folk rock of The Lioness, and the experimental density of Ghost Tropic.
It is, if anything, Molina at his most spiritual—his most otherworldly. The place where this world, and another, much larger one, overlap, and the spaces that form in between the two.
I do not how much, if any, gospel music Jason Molina listened to—if he listened with any regularity, or if it was something he simply had an appreciation for. The threads, if there were ever any to start with, that could have connected Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, and Jason Molina are now extremely frayed—just passing, unsubstantiated references5 to be looked at by those, like myself, who are desperate to find something larger, or more meaningful in a place where there is, really, nothing like that to be found.
If you look at it as a question, it’s one that is never answered.
Didn’t it rain?
And even though any kind of connecting threads are now frayed, what I can see is Molina’s “Didn’t it Rain?” isn’t a response, per se, to the gospel song it shares a name with, but it’s the antithesis.
In the spiritual, both Jackson and Tharpe warn listeners about the sin that prevents you from receiving love, or acceptance, in the eyes of god. In referencing the tale of Noah’s Ark, and 40 days and nights of rain—“Knock at the window, knock at the door. ‘Come on brother Noah, can you take some more?’ No, no my brothers, you are full of sin. God has the key—you can’t get in.”
Molina’s song is admittedly aware of the presence of a “higher power,” but more than anything, it is a stark meditation on how we, as humans, are truly alone—even when we do make some kind of connection, or offer up assistance to another person, there is still a a space—a distance that cannot be completely closed.
There is an embittered tone—or at least, exhausted and cynical, as the song begins: “No matter how dark the storm gets overhead, they say someone’s watching from the calm at the edge. What about us when we’re down here in it,” Molina inquires. “We gotta watch our own backs.”
As the song continues to unfurl slowly, and gracefully, Molina walks the line between offering slight glimmers of hope, or optimism, but those are sharply juxtaposed against anguish. “But if you do see that golden light that shines in its fiery eye, go on and catch it while you can,” he implores, but then quickly shifts a few lines later—“If they think you got it, they’re going to beat it out of you through work and debt and whatever all else there is. You gotta watch your own back.”
Musically, there is nothing else as sweeping and stirring as “Didn’t it Rain?” as the rest of the album unfolds in its wake—nor is there anything as gorgeous and dramatic. It is among the finest, for myriad reasons, in Molina’s canon of work. Setting a tone, and truly capturing a moment, the interplay between the sparse, folksy instrumentation, and the beautiful layers of wordless singing between himself and singer Jennie Benford, are as haunting as they are beautiful. It’s a song that is able to build itself up, and in a few instances, almost gets caught up in its own slow burning momentum, but the group never truly lets it get away from them.
In her excerpt from Riding With The Ghost that was published on Spin’s website so many years ago, Erin Osmon refers to a moment of real honesty in the song as a “blemish,” albeit, she also says is the most recognized and beloved of blemishes. I would disagree in the way it’s described, though. In the studio, Molina was infamous for recording with little preparation, in as few takes as possible, and with no overdubbing. Didn’t it Rain? is not nearly as raucous of an album as the electrified twang of The Magnolia Electric Company, so it is not the kind of album that lends itself to playing loudly on the turntable—there is an “in the room” kind of feeling to the way it is recorded and produced, with the group performing together, and playing off of one another. It is a quiet kind of intimacy that you can hear when listening closely for those kind of details.
Maybe Molina did not see himself as a “band leader,” but on “Didn’t it Rain?,” there is a moment, as it nears the seven minute mark, where he mumbles, “Let’s bring it back, we can sing one more,” to Benford, and the group steers the song back into the chord progression of the wordless, soaring chorus a final time before bring the song to a close.
If you look at it as a question, it’s one that is never answered.
Didn’t it rain?
How would you describe your depression?
And I am uncertain why this is, and I do wish that it were not the case, but I find that, the older I become, and the more I have lived—the more that I live with and try to live through, the more likely I am to remember, or at least, regularly recall, the bad times—specific moments when I found myself in extremely low points, or bad, dark places.
The things that I wish I was not always carrying with me.
Years after my friend from college tried gently nudging me toward the work of Jason Molina, I did eventually come to it on my own. This would have been toward the end of 2012, around the time there was a headline on Pitchfork about a forthcoming 10” single from Jason Molina, touted as his first new release since he more or less disappeared from the public eye three years prior. In skimming the accompanying story, out of curiosity more than anything else, I began to work my way backwards through what few updates there had been, in the past, about Molina since he abruptly scrapped touring plans in 2009 and seemingly vanished.
He had been in and out of rehabilitation facilities and hospitals for treatment—the condition, always unnamed—in Chicago, Indianapolis, New Orleans, West Virginia, and England. One update, shared by his label on behalf of his family, in 2011, mentioned he had been working on a farm and was “looking forward to making great music again.”
Molina, himself, gave a final update in the spring of 2012, less than a year before he died, saying he had been through a “long hospital year,” and through treatment, he was, “getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn't want to.”
“I have not given up because you, my friends have not given up on me.”
And it was then, maybe five or six months before Molina died, that I found myself slowly unpacking his canon—trying to surmise the distinction between where Songs: Ohia ended and where Magnolia Electric concluded; where his solo albums like Let Me Go and Pyramid Electric Company fell into his body of work.
The more I live with and try to live through, the more likely I am to remember or at least, regularly recall, the bad times—specific moments when I found myself in extremely low points, or bad, dark places.
I found Jason Molina’s music when I needed it, which is why it had, and still has, such an enormous impact on me, and why I still return to it so often.
Why I still feel a jolt of unhinged catharsis when the needle hits the vinyl and the opening twang of “Farewell Transmission” blares out of my stereo; why I still feel the chill of sadness when I listen to “Red Comet Dust,” from Pyramid Electric Company.
Why I still count along the six times he uses the word endless to describe depression.
Why his ghost still haunts me.
The thing about a tormented artist is that nearly all of them are white men—and nearly all of them are, or were, in some way, problematic—behavior that is difficult, if not impossible at times, to completely reconcile.
Even before his decline into alcoholism, leading to his death in March 2013, Molina could be troubling and difficult. It’s documented in Riding With The Ghost, but his treatment of women, especially his wife, with whom he had been estranged from for a number of years at the time of his death, is appalling; professionally, he could be quick tempered and arrogant toward bandmates and collaborators.
I get the impression there was Jason Molina the person, and Jason Molina the persona, and it was hard to tell where one ended, and the other began, or if there was even a distinction.
We have the desire, as best as we are able to in situations, to try and separate the art from the artist.
Even before sitting with it analytically as it celebrates a milestone anniversary, I would have subjectively, just as a fan—as someone who found parts of themself in it—said that Didn’t it Rain? was a high-water mark in Molina’s career—quite possibly a definitive artistic statement. But I get the impression that, as a songwriter and a mercurial artist, he was not interested in plaudits of that kind. Didn’t it Rain? isn’t the kind of album that features “hit” singles but arguably its titular, opening track is among the most well-known in Molina’s body of work.
But as a performer, Molina had little, if any, interest in playing “the hits” on stage, knowingly turning his back to older material in favor of newer songs from the prolific pace he was writing and recording, even during the time of his steady decline.
It is difficult not to look at Didn’t it Rain?, even as a snapshot of when it was recorded, and not think about what would transpire in the years that followed in terms of Molina’s self-destruction and ultimate demise—ultimately, it was organ failure that contributed to his death. The sobriety he was unable to maintain, despite how he may have tried.
Didn’t it Rain? isn’t an easy album to listen to—and ease, or accessibility was never the point. It’s a statement of beauty, though. Harrowing and bleak, it is evocative in both its instrumentation and lyricism in ways a lot of songwriters—even writers could only hope to be. But in all of that desolation, and in all of that “blue,” it is gorgeous. Gorgeous in the way it swoons in its titular track, gorgeous in the way it burns slowly and smolders, gorgeous in the way it plays with the spaces that form in the silence.
Gorgeous and unforgettable in the way it uses the word “endless” six times to describe the darkness within.
Gorgeous in the way that it never answers the question.
Didn’t it rain?
1- For the longest time, I believed the racist anecdote about Elvis Presley—that he had said the only thing a Black person could do for him was buy his records and shine his shoes. In dealing with the past, it is tough to truly know, but there are a number of sources on the internet claiming he had never said this. However, he is guilty of the appropriation of Black music.
2- Eric Clapton, prior to the pandemic, was not that much of a troubling figure in popular music. And for somebody, like Presley, who appropriated Black music, it is fascinating that he went on an extremely racist tirade in 1976.
3- This was news to me, but also, I am not well versed enough in the history of Sister Rosetta Tharpe to know how much this is rooted in fact or speculation. There is an article on Medium, published in 2020, that discusses the elements of her sexual identity.
4- I discussed this, not in great detail, in the “in memoriam” piece I wrote about Molina shortly after his death. It is also referenced in the Pitchfork review of Pyramid Electric Company.
5- I started working on this piece toward the end of February, because these things take a lot of time in terms of research, listening analytically, and figuring out how to build the piece itself. In the interim, the music website Stereogum published its own “anniversary” piece on Didn’t it Rain?, and the writer only casually (and kind of callously) mentions the possible connection to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s song. I only mention this as an aside because I find it fascinating that I was not the only one searching for history on this album at roughly the same time, but that in writing about the same thing as someone else, I took a much different approach to the subject.