Review: Magnolia Electric Co., “Josephine”

The passing of bassist Evan Farrell was enough to make Jason Molina think about breaking up the band, according to some recent interviews. Instead, Molina turned to his guitar and ended up writing what might be the best Magnolia Electric Co. record since the group’s 2003 debut. Josephine finds the band looking forwards and backwards, breaking new ground and mining old territory and creating something strangely seductive in the process.

Molina has been surprisingly candid about his latest record. He doesn’t quite explain Josephine, but he doesn’t hide the fact that it is a reckoning with the death of a friend and fellow musician. Appropriately, the record is one of the darkest the Company has crafted. In places it recalls the subterranean gloom and lonely isolation of the best Songs: Ohia records, but it doesn’t linger in the past long enough to be a step backwards. From the opening “O! Grace,” which features a surprising sax solo, to the romance of “Rock of Ages” and the punchy organ on “Little Sad Eyes,” Molina and his band avoid falling into clichés by refusing to sit still. The variety of musical styles and instrumentation is, in part, a tribute to the ideas Farrell had for this record, but also proof positive that Molina is one of the best songwriters this country has. He moves gracefully from the straight rock of “Josephine” and “The Handing Down” to the woeful sludge of “Knoxville Girl” and the bar-room balladry of “Heartbreak at Ten Paces.” Keeping these disparate adventures in tact is Molina’s magical lyricism, which deserves a review of its own in many ways. Although the familiar images of horizons, bells, moons, and birds persist on this record, they acquire a personal dimension in light of Molina’s forwardness.

It would be easy to say that Josephine is a concept record about the loss of a bandmate, but that’d sell Molina’s songwriting ability short. Perhaps the most emotionally overwhelming song on the record, “Whip-Poor-Will,” was written at least as early as 2003. It appeared on the bonus CD to the Magnolia Electric Co. debut in acoustic form and it remains largely unchanged lyrically. So, while the song might sound like a letter to the deceased, it is more likely a song about loss and mortality in general. With Molina it’s hard to tell, however. He’s called the lyrics to “Josephine” a rebus and refused to say too much about who or what Josesphine is. As honest as he is on this record, he’s also just as obscure and impressionistic as he’s always been.

Josephine focuses a lot on ghosts, hope, and believing in something, but that only solidifies the album’s central figure enough to make her something less than an abstract name on paper. She’s mentioned throughout the record with references to hope, freedom, and foolishness surrounding her. On “Hope Dies Last,” the band half cries out for her, like she’s a lost lover far beyond their reach. Musing over the album’s many themes is probably best left to each listener, who can mull over lyrics, images, and the album’s evolution in the same personal way that Jason created them. But, I think it might be possible to decode Josephine by listening to the deep, resounding bass that dominates nearly every song. Its sensuous, pulsing sound is the album’s lifeblood. It is at the center of the best songs and, like a gift, encourages Molina to explore the dark territory that has always marked his best work.

Josephine is available from Secretly Canadian
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com

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