Review: Songs: Ohia, “Axxess & Ace”

Jason Molina’s discography is littered with unique albums and unexpected approaches; his constant re-invention and willingness to experiment practically defines his career. But, one of my favorites is one of his cockiest and most unadorned records. Ostensibly devoted to the subject of unrequited love and its many ins and outs, Jason’s third album explores a topic most writers rightfully avoid for fear of foolish sentiment and awkward cliché.

Writing about love is one of the hardest and dumbest things a young writer can attempt. Nevermind that love is easily one of the most written-about subjects in the history of song and poetry, it’s just stupendously easy to write very bad songs about a pretty girl or a failed relationship. Everyone’s probably scribbled something like that down in a journal somewhere at some point. But, Molina doesn’t shy away from these topics. On both “Redhead” and “How To Be Perfect Men” Jason tackles them head on, but he does it without forced romance or a single cheap lyrical trope. He opens the record up with a warning shot: “There will be trouble with me / there will be trouble more than these.” One verse later he utters an unusually cocky couplet, half-threatening his nameless other with claims of superiority and virility while still managing to sound like a beggar: “There won’t be more than one of me / is the only thing I can ever promise you / And I make enough loving for three of me.”

Songs: Ohia doesn’t sound like this anywhere else. Between its quickly strummed guitar and sultry rhythm combination, “Hot Black Silk” sounds triumphant and desperate simultaneously, as does much of the rest of the record. Molina gravitates between familiar yearning and a reproachful distaste for love’s many moods throughout Axxess & Ace. He offers up sage-like advice on “Love & Work,” warns against tyranny on “Love Leaves Its Abusers,” and with a seducer’s confidence sings about love, second chances, and making decisions on the superb “Captain Badass.” Molina hasn’t even approached this kind of attitude on anything since Axxess & Ace: “Quote Captain Badass, ‘I am setting your heart on fire / so when you leave me / I will burn on in your soul…’ / You won’t have to think twice / If it’s love you will know.”

The record’s second side is a little more subdued than the first, but it continues Molina’s lyrical hot streak with songs like “Come Back To Your Man” and “How To Be Perfect Men.” The former is an impressionistic demand for forgiveness that quickly takes a selfish turn. For the first time since “Love & Work” Jason hints at some kind of reciprocity, trying to explain whatever it is that needs explaining: “There are demands on spirit and flesh / and I’ve made the effort to survive them.” But, with an unexpected twist, the band launches into a reproachful chorus as Molina half shouts, “Now come back to your man.” Like his explanation should be enough to patch things up. The latter is one of the most despairing songs on the record, and it returns to the somewhat jazzy, almost sleazy sound of “Captain Badass,” but this time around the mood is total surrender and defeat. With a bitterly sarcastic tone Molina calmly recites, “I choose to have women write my plan / and I have my reasons / They’ll write that list / of all that I should be / and perfect men would never be / jealous or desperate / My ghost and I in our grave will lie / and we’ll read that plan / on how to be perfect men.”

The Secretly Canadian Web site features a quote from Jason about this record, where he says that the album was recorded very much on the fly and without much preparation: many songs were recorded in one take without the musicians having much of a chance to digest the songs. He also says this album is especially devoid of bullshit lyrically, so I take it to be a pretty naked representation of whatever was going through his mind at the time. Thanks to that kind of directness, Axxess & Ace sounds phenomenal. The band performances are sparse, but potent, and the lyrics are both tense and personal, almost uncomfortably so. For that very same reason they are appealing and cathartic. Instead of distancing himself from the subject matter like a student at study, Molina puts him (and us) in the middle of it without shying away from any thought, no matter how ugly. Axxess & Ace deserves to be mentioned among his other great albums, like Ghost Tropic and Magnolia Electric Co., not because it ventures into unusual or highly stylized territory, but because it is without conceit, features some of Molina’s best-written songs, and because it contains some of the best songs I’ve heard about love from anyone.

Axxess & Ace is available on Secretly Canadian
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com

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