Album Review: Jodi - Blue Heron
We, as I am beginning to write this, are in what it is commonly referred to as the “dog days” of summer—an expression, or description, that for how deeply embedded it is into the lexicon at large, what I did not realize, until very, very recently, is the expression, the “dog days” of summer, is used to measure a specific number of days, beginning in one month then stretching slightly into the next.
What is more surprising than that, is the “dog days” themselves begin much, much earlier than I had anticipated, or ever even considered, when giving passing thought to the phrase.
They are described as the days where the temperature, and weather itself, is “hot” and “sultry,” and a very brief internet search informed me that, for this year, 2021, the official start to the “dog days” was July 3rd, running all the way until August 11th.
The thing about the month of August, at least for me, is that it is a month of anticipation and promise for the shifting of the seasons—the sultry heat will, given time, recede, replaced by the cool, crisp air of autumn.
The thing about the shift in seasons, and gradual change from summer into autumn, at least for me, is that it is a time of feeling incredibly nostalgic—sometimes bittersweet and often wistful, but regardless, autumn—specifically the final, fleeting moments of August, giving way to September, and early October, is the time of year when I am most reminded of where I was, or who I was, in autumns of the past.
I have, more than likely, written about this kind of seasonally dictated, wistful remembrance before, and I have, more than likely, written about the way seasons, or times of year can lend themselves to a specific song, or an album.
It should not be surprising that autumn is the time of year I have the most musical associations with. And released during what is commonly referred to as the “dog days” of summer, Blue Heron, the debut full-length from Nick Levine’s project Jodi, is inherently an autumn album.
I will be gone, but not forever
In 2003, in the sprawling, iconic opening1 track to the Magnolia Electric Company album, foretelling in its title, “Farewell Transmission,” Jason Molina sang those words—almost as an aside, tucked in-between other lyrics within the song that he either spoke/sung, or howled with a reckless abandon.
And roughly a decade later—down to the month, and a few days, give or take, Molina passed away. His body, ravaged by years of unprecedented alcohol abuse and failed attempts at recovery and sobriety, unceremoniously gave out.
Certainly, there had always been something eerie about that phrase; I had heard it for the first time, mere months before his death in March of 2013, and in the years that have followed, it has become even more haunting to think about.
It’s very easy, for me anyway, to see it as and want it to be something maybe bigger than Molina had intended when he sang those words into a microphone in Chicago, Illinois.
There’s something prophetic about it—not so much a foreboding, but rather, an acceptance of the inevitable. That is, of course, among just some of the things I feel like it has either come to mean, or that I have wanted it to mean, over the last eight years.
I will be gone, but not forever
Of course, the most literal meaning of it is, even though Molina himself has left this mortal coil his music continues to live—the kind of cult artist new listeners may discover with time, but mostly, it’s still just those of us who found ourselves within his music before, and will continue to do so; continuing to hold those songs close to us, like a secret just on the cusp of being revealed.
It means that even though Molina himself has left this mortal coil, his music continues to live through serving as an inspiration to others.
I can’t take credit for the Jason Molina comparison regarding Nick Levine’s full-length debut as Jodi, Blue Heron. Selected as a featured “Album of The Week” on Stereogum2, Blue Heron’s arresting cover art caught my attention, and in skimming the piece, Songs: Ohia, among other indie-folk adjacent bands, is mentioned; and once I began listening, I couldn’t shake hearing the similarities between Molina’s voice and that of Levine’s.
No less thoughtful but an exponentially more robust and lush sounding outing than Levine’s previous release under the Jodi moniker, the ramshackle and whimsical Karaoke EP from 2017, the easy way to describe Blue Heron is by drawing a comparison between its gentle, acoustic, folk-leaning instrumentation and that of, say, early Sun Kil Moon, like Ghosts of The Great Highway or April, coupled with the Jason Molina-esque delicate twang found in Levine’s singing.
But the album is, of course, so much more than the things it is easy to compare it to.
Got some words to write. Just working through it all…
There exists, in my mind at least, a somewhat convoluted Venn diagram, where albums or songs released in the autumn, albums or songs you first heard in or strongly associate with the autumn, or songs and albums that sound like autumn, all can overlap then converge in the center. But, all of these incredibly subjective and sometimes difficult to articulate descriptors may also be applied to something individually.
It doesn’t exist within every song on Blue Heron, but within many, there is a feeling—vivid, and woven tightly into the instrumentation and songwriting—that, putting it as plainly as I can, sounds like autumn.
The feeling first appears, and out of Blue Heron’s 10 tracks, is the most noticeable, on the delicate, sweeping, at times dramatically arranged “Go Slowly.”
And it was, more than likely, “Go Slowly”—sequenced as the album’s second track, that sold me on Blue Heron after I initially read about the album, and while the album as a whole is very solid, only faltering like once or twice, “Go Slowly” is the strongest track here, hands down.
What I have learned, thus far, into the limited amount of “research” I have done, is that, outside of learning Nick Levine was a member of the beloved and also beleaguered indie-folk band Pinegrove3, from its inception a decade ago, through the recording of last year’s Marigold, it is that they are very, very funny4.
It’s a subtle sense of humor, though, and while a majority of Blue Heron’s lyrics are fragmented or mildly ambiguous, pensive, and thoughtful, there are a handful of songs where Levine makes a space for that humor, as subtle, or smirking, as it might be.
“Does this party stress you out?,” they ask, almost in a hush, within the delicate opening line of “Go Slowly.” “Can’t stand talking about yourself? What I have been up to—I can’t recall…,” Levine continues, taking the song’s gentle, almost fragile opening arrangement from an awkward social interaction, into someplace punctured by a sense of unresolved longing, then rumination. “The other day I saw your picture on the wall, but things are going well,” they sing. “I’ve just keeping to myself…got some words to write—just working through it all.”
Levine continues that juxtaposition of humor and melancholy as the song progresses, with the poignant observation from the second verse, “Everyone’s a salesman when you’re down…so I keep it to myself,” and perhaps one of the starkest phrase turns from the album—“Then you’re holed up in the basement, crying to the beat.”
It is, though, not Levine’s use of imagery and language that makes Blue Heron an autumn album, or a song like “Go Slowly” an autumnal song—it is in the song’s gorgeous instrumentation and arranging.
It’s in the way the song begins with a simple, reserved snare tap and brushed cymbal keep the time, and how the strums of Levine’s acoustic guitar strings brightly resonate; it’s the way that another layer of instrumentation—a light, electric guitar, quivering through the waves of a tremolo pedal—slowly wafts in, almost unnoticeable at first, then sound totally natural and at home. There’s a melancholic crispness to all of it, as Levine makes their way through the song’s first verse, and into the song’s refrain, which is where everything tumbles together into one of those perfect musical moments5.
For an album that is as somber as Blue Heron is capable of being at times, and with its instrumentation primarily rooted in an acoustic, “indie,” folk-leaning sound—“queer country” is what Levine calls Jodi’s aesthetic—there are a number of songs that have an infectious nature to them—written around a melody that lingers, and a refrain that isn’t “big,” per se, but one that goes for it in terms of making the song swell as much as it is able to.
And the refrain to “Go Slowly,” where Levine sings the titular phrase—“Can we go slowly? I got lost behind the veil, finding other hills to scale”—is where the song becomes the most vivid in its autumnal feeling. There’s this dramatic way in which the music swirls around with Levine as they ask, “Can we,” and it’s in that little moment—just a fraction of the song as a whole, that pulls from an endless well of the contrast between the warmth of the sun and the cool breeze, the burning oranges, ambers, and reds of the leaves as they turn, and the unpredictable, often slow motion, dizzying way those same leaves spiral down to the ground.
And this is something that I have written about at least once before, if not more than once, and I hesitate to refer to it as a moment I often come back to, or think about often, but it is, however, a moment—one of personal importance, that I do come back to, perhaps more often than I should.
I arrived very late to Jason Molina in all his forms—the two, very skeletal, very dark albums he had released under his own name, his beloved work under the Songs: Ohia banner, and then his once prolific output as the Magnolia Electric Company. Not that it matters, really, when you choose to “get into” an artist, but I had somehow found my way to Molina in the very late autumn of 2012, mere months before his death.
Slowly, I began immersing myself in, I guess, what you would call the “big” albums from both of his projects—the self-titled Magnolia Electric Company album, released in 2003, and the final6 Songs: Ohia record, Didn’t It Rain?, released the year prior. And alongside those, I found myself drawn further and further into the first record released, simply, as Jason Molina—the sprawling, cavernous Pyramid Electric Company.
And this is something that I have written about at least once before, if not more than once, and I hesitate to refer to it as a moment I often come back to, or think about often, but it is, however a moment—and this was, I can remember, when I had reached a very low point, personally, or emotionally, I guess, near the end of 2012, and on a rainy, cold, October afternoon, I sat in my car, in the parking lot of a Caribou Coffee, and I couldn’t stop crying.
Filling the air, coming from the CD player, and fighting for space amongst the muffled thudding of the rain hitting the roof of the car, were the long, reverberating sounds of the piano, and Jason Molina’s voice, singing “Red Comet Dust.”
The endless blue shadow inside you
Gathered in you
Disappeared in you
Into the solid earth….
I want to be true
There is a dichotomy that Levine manages to stretch and pull across the entirety of Blue Heron.
It isn’t all autumnally leaning acoustic guitars and gently brushed percussion—they make sure you are aware of that right from the rip on the album’s opening track, “Power,” and throughout, the dichotomy Levine plays with, and the line they continually walk, is between the give and take of a “quiet/loud” dynamic.
The gentle, introspective nature of a lot of the arranging and songwriting on Blue Heron is beautiful, yes, but there is enough dissonance that appears and serves as, at times, a surprise or a shock, to keep the listener from becoming too comfortable, or believing they understand the tonality of the record as a whole.
And perhaps unintentionally, Levine breaks that dichotomy down in a sense, in the final line of “Power” when singing, “Reaching out with my hands—looking for something powerful and soft.” The word powerful, though, can be used to both describe the heft, or the weight, of the emotional nature of portions of Blue Heron, but also the sheer impact it can have musically within that tension and release Levine builds, straddling that line of quiet and loud, continuing to play with the album’s dynamics.
It’s that contrast within the idea of something “powerful and soft,” and how the album itself, as a whole, is just that—it can, at times, be incredibly tender; elsewhere, it is capable of being surprisingly explosive.
There is a sense of simmering tension in “Power” in the way the low, rumbling notes from the electric guitar ring out, casting a somewhat ominous, if not unsettling shadow, and the way that the gentle sounds of the 12-string guitar cut through that, somewhat, projecting a little light onto the shadow, but not much.
Levine works within that balance of quiet and loud again within the album’s second side on both the track that opens it, “Buddy, as well as partially on “Water,” one of two very short pieces sequenced back to back near the album’s conclusion.
There is something borderline whimsical about naming a song “Buddy,” and, seemingly in earnest, using the words to describe friends, as Levine does within the song’s first few lines. “It’s wintertime—time to see all your buddies,” they begin. “Where’d everybody go?”
And there is a glimmer of Levine’s sense of humor in that line, or a smirk at least, especially with the way they allow the words to come tumbling down gently into the song’s instrumentation. “Buddy,” itself, as it progresses, continues to subtly build until roughly the two minute mark, when there is streak of snarling dissonance from the electric guitar that cuts through, adding emphasis the specific set of lyrics find themselves surrounded by the noise: “Then you’re driving in the rain on a clover interchange, just swerving through the day.”
If there is any song on Blue Heron that would lend itself to being selected as a single for radio play—college stations, or something NPR-adjacent, while still managing to balance itself within the vivid trappings of an autumnal sound, it would be “Get Back,” which moves away from some of the drama, or grandeur of “Go Slowly,” in terms of presentation, creating a more accessible, more up-tempo song that, through time signature and momentum shifts (a common device Levine employs throughout Blue Heron), builds a song that borders on infectious within what is structured as a verse, before it slows and builds into a swooning, swaying autumnal burst in the form of a large scale refrain.
A similar feeling is conjured in “Hawks,” where Levine expertly crafts a juxtaposition between a stuttered, marginally tense rhythm while they sing the verses, before the song unfurls into a rollicking, kaleidoscopic swirl of acoustic guitars; it, like “Get Back,” are damn near “groove oriented” in the way they are executed at times, which is an expression I would, up until now, never think to use when describing an album that, overall, is pensive and folksy, but Levine, as a songwriter, understands how, outside of creating this autumnally feeling album, subtly build a rhythm, and a feeling, that you cannot help but let your body slide into, and move along with it.
Four years is quite a long time for an artist to develop, or push their project further along, and in the years between Levine’s debut as Jodi, and Blue Heron, there are still similar elements, but they, as a songwriter and performer, are much more focused—the musicianship is also a lot tighter and richer in sound, though the latter might have something to do with the way the album was recorded and produced more than any other factors. And as Blue Heron comes to a close with its titular track, there is a slight callback to the lo-fi, home recorded feeling of Karaoke, in the form of the first sound you hear—a chintzy, dated sounding drum machine.
However, “Blue Heron,” even with its electronic percussion keeping time, is anything but chintzy—musically, the swirling, gentle plucks of the acoustic guitar strings are gorgeous, especially within the way they float just above the precision of the rhythm, creating a contrast that isn’t hard to miss; and lyrically, it finds Levine at their bleakest.
“Am I coming down with something or just coming down?,” Levine asks in the song’s opening line, and there is a narrative here, or a portrait that is being painted, through through their use of ambiguity, it becomes difficult to entirely what is being depicted—though, whatever it is, it’s dark.
“Try to be brave for my friends, so I spit it out,” they continue. “Swirling around in my head…shattered the back of my van, spinning out.”
With no chorus, “Blue Heron” unfolds like a poem set to music—a live drum kit eventually taking over for the drum machine heard in the opening, with a secondary guitar, and cavernous sounding piano filing in as the song progresses. “You’re on your back now, trying to find a place to meet friends—but they’re all closing down,” Levine observes in the second verse. “But is it really so bad to be floating around? Come on Jodi, get it right…don’t let me down.”
And there is no resolution, as “Blue Heron” slowly fades out and the album ends; and like the best kind of lyrics in contemporary popular music, or the best kind of fiction, you more or less have to be completely okay that you, in the end, are perhaps left with more questions than answers—Blue Heron is an album so inviting, musically, it envelops the listener, but so fragmented, and shadowy, lyrically that it doesn’t so much keep you at an arm’s lengths but in cloaking itself the way it has, it leaves you both wanting an explanation, or more elaboration, but also accepting of the fact the Levine is playing a lot of their truths close to the chest.
And what I have found, when I found myself immersed in Blue Heron, is that there is a duplicity to the sense of longing it has.
There is, of course, the sense of longing I have placed within this record and within its instrumentation and the gentle, thoughtful nature of its arrangements, making it an autumnal album, longing for the way the leaves will slowly tumble from their branches to the ground below.
But there is a real, palpable longing that Levine has written into these songs—or the unnerving desperation that is clear and present in the titular track. And I hesitate to say that the idea of “loss” is present in a number of the song’s lyrics, but perhaps a sense of displacement, or an uncertainty, like on the dissonant “Slug Night,” which concludes Blue Heron’s first side—“Sober up; you watered out to find a friend but everyone is closing up, or closing down,”; “You can always come back home—you can find that note,” Levine assures on the gentle “Softy,” “And you’ll find me, too.”
Or, in a very surprising contrast, the near jaunty instrumentation of “Hawks,” paired with its dream-like final lines—“Just trying to find that note—feel my way through the fields full of overgrowth to find them empty. Where’d everybody go? When I get the notion, I tear around.”
Roughly a year ago, following a series of sometimes elaborate reissues, Jason Molina’s label began to pull unreleased material out of the vault—his biography, Riding With The Ghost, published in 2017, alleges there are a number of crude home recordings floating around somewhere, but the first official collection to be unveiled was Eight Gates, a short, very sparse series of songs (sometimes appearing like they are unfinished sketches.) Recorded in early 2009 while Molina was living abroad in the UK, the material included is thought to be the last time he worked within a proper studio before he more or less disappeared from performing all together later that year.
And roughly a year ago, as I was preparing to ease my way into Eight Gates, then begin writing about it, I was having a conversation with my best friend—who understands both how much Molina means to me but it also well aware of how his story ends—and I told her when I listen to his music now, especially within the last few years, his voice becomes a ghost—a ghost that is trying to speak to me.
Would I go so far to say that I am haunted by the ghost of Jason Molina, especially in these last few years?
Would I say that I had been haunted by his ghost before he had even left this mortal coil?
Is it a haunting if it is an understanding, or an acceptance, of all the inevitabilities?
The way he stretches his fragile voice over the piano key plunking and sings, “The endless blue shadow inside you…,” and the way the raindrops hit the roof of the car and the sound of my labored sobs while sitting in the driver’s seat on a cold, October afternoon.
The way he repeats the line, “Paralyzed by the emptiness,” on “Blue Factory Flame,” from Didn’t it Rain?; then, only two songs later, on “Blue Chicago Moon,” the way he uses the word “endless” seven times to describe depression.
Is it a haunting if it is an understanding, or an acceptance, of all the inevitabilities?
I will be gone, but not forever
We, as I am now finishing this, thousands of words and a few days later, have recently moved away from what is commonly referred to as the “dog days” of summer—the afternoons, and early evenings as the sun begins its slow motion decent still full of a warmth that can be hot, yes, but things have been much less “sultry” temperature wise, comparatively.
The morning air full of a slight, comforting chill and a promise there are more days like this to come.
“It’s August! It’s almost fall!,” a friend of mine exclaimed to me just yesterday. “Then it’ll be winter,” she continued with a reluctance in her voice, already dreading the shorter days, longer nights, the frigid air, and the unspeakable isolation.
All of these moments in a lifetime, beautiful and wonderful and terrible, are fleeting and we do our best, or we tell ourselves we are doing our best to hold onto them, or be grateful, but we are always bracing ourselves for whatever is coming next.
Blue Heron, in a sense, is the kind of album that can serve as a score to those beautiful and wonderful moments that we let slip through—the days of cooler air, or witnessing a down pouring of amber leaves slowly and precisely cascading to the ground below; the days of wistful rumination on autumns of the past, 17 years ago, or as recent as two years ago—thinking about where we were, and who we were.
In Blue Heron, Nick Levine has created a fascinating collection of songs that are inherently gentle with a little roughness around the edges; their focus, as a singer and songwriter, is razor sharp though, and you can hear that in how lush the instrumentation and production on the record is, and how the songs, written at various times over the last four or five years, are connected through small details and recurring imagery or ideas. You can compare it, yes, or find perhaps unintentional or subconscious inspiration from Jason Molina, Mark Kozelek, or even Elliott Smith, but it is an album that is strong enough to be more than things it is easy to describe it as being like.
It can be, for you, or me, personally, a record that serves as the score to our attempts at hanging onto beautiful and wonderful moments, but for Levine, performing under the Jodi moniker, it is the sound of an already confident and well versed performer continuing to grow and develop, creating an impressive artistic statement and an assurance of promising things to come.
1- I have always found it audacious that “Farewell Transmission,” and a song like “Farewell Transmission,” is the first song on Magnolia Electric; though I really couldn’t see that album opening any other way.
2- I talk a lot of cash shit about Stereogum, mostly because two of their head writers, or at least two guys who contribute the most to the site’s content, are just absolutely awful. I wish, overall, that the writing were a lot better, and that parts of the site took itself more seriously, but I continue to read it because they provide coverage to artists that other sites (i.e. Pitchfork) often do not.
3- There was a point during my first draft of this piece that I quickly abandoned after a day or two and had to, more or less, start over, where I thought about shoehorning a whole thing about Pinegrove in, but I decided it’d be best suited to be a footnote, since there was already so much other stuff going on here. There are people I have met who seem like listening to Pinegrove is their whole personality, and there are also Pinegrove apologists, who are quick to defend and explain the allegations brought forward about the band’s founder and frontman in 2017. It’s a difficult to understand story, but the guy seems like a sex pest, and regardless of if he is or not, his yelpy singing voice is just not for me.
4- If you aren’t following Nick Levine on Twitter or Instagram, please begin doing so.
5- I recently talked about the idea of musical “moments” in the piece I wrote about the new Squirrel Flower album.
6- I wrote the same footnote a year ago when I reviewed Eight Gates, but there is debate about if Didn’t it Rain? is the final Songs: Ohia album, or if Magnolia Electric Company is. Regardless of how they are presented, or how you’ve filed them alphabetically in your record collection, my take on it is one album seems like a very clear conclusion to one thing, and the other record seems like a very clear beginning to something different.