He claimed he’d been bitten by a rare spider while travelling in Italy. The venom supposedly left Jason Molina, the guiding spirit behind Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co, bedridden and weak for months on end, confined to the London home he shared with his wife. His condition confounded doctors and made most creative endeavours – touring and recording in particular – all but impossible. That was the story Molina told several people in the late 2000s, after he had moved to London with his wife, possibly to explain a long drought of new music and live dates. But Molina always had a gift for muddying the truth with invented mythologies, for spinning tall tales about himself and his music. Was that obscure arachnid even real? Might it be some combination of fact and fabrication?
There is some suspicion that he was trying to explain away the physical ailments brought on by alcoholism; by the time he relocated to England, he was already in the throes of addiction, which had scuttled a planned tour with his friend and collaborator Will Johnson. He was drinking heavily, hiding it from his friends and perhaps inventing wild stories to deflect scrutiny. He had found the time to record a new Magnolia Electric Co album, Josephine, back in Chicago and tour briefly with his band, but most days were spent holed up in his flat drinking and writing songs when he could. He would spend the next few years struggling with alcoholism, entering and abandoning several rehab facilities before dying in March 2013. Just like the black dog calling at Nick Drake’s door, Molina’s spider becomes a grim metaphor for addiction and depression.
During those dark days in London, Molina booked one of his final recording sessions, the results of which have been fashioned into a new posthumous album, Eight Gates. The title is a bit of lore picked up on one of his many rambles around the city: the London Wall had seven points of entry into the city, but Molina invented an eighth gate, one only he knew about, more metaphysical than historical – his own personal entrance into some strange version of the place. The opportunity to record these new songs came about mostly by happenstance. Greg Norman, an engineer at Electrical Audio back in Chicago, had booked a flight to London for another recording session, but that project fell through. He contacted Molina, with whom he’d worked closely on Josephine, and together they brainstormed a few ideas before booking time at New Air Studios, owned by producer John Reynolds (Sinéad O’Connor, Damien Dempsey).
The key to everything was minimalism. There were only a handful of people in the studio, including Molina, Norman and multi-instrumentalist Chris Cacavas (Green on Red, The Dream Syndicate). Occasionally a local musician arrived to add deep cello rumblings or sympathetic violin swirls. Molina’s songwriting was similarly spare. He’d been a wordy lyricist since his early days with Songs: Ohia, eschewing verse-chorus-verse for what sounded like lengthy poems set to music. The songs on Eight Gates, whether by artistic intention or physical necessity, are short, with few words and rarely surpassing two minutes in length. Arrangements are bare, like winter trees with no leaves; even Cacavas’s contributions gesture to absence and silence. Eight Gates (or this version of it anyway, constructed more than a decade later) suggests that at the very least Molina was tinkering with new approaches to constructing songs and at the very most was entering a new phase in his creative career.
The result is an album that is fleeting, elliptical and elusive, containing nine songs and clocking in at a mere 25 minutes. On the surface it might appear slight, insubstantial, possibly even the work of an artist not completely committed to the project. Especially after the rambling country-rock songs of Josephine, which was explicitly an examination of his marriage and an apology of sorts to his wife, songs like opener “Whisper Away” and closer “The Crossroad + The Emptiness” sound refreshing in their mystery. What Molina alludes to on this album is just as powerful as what he makes explicit.
Take “Old Worry”, the album’s wounded heart. After a sharp introductory strum of his acoustic guitar, which sounds like a sad fanfare, Molina sings an aching blues as cello and organ commiserate. “Old worry, nearer to emptiness,” Molina sings. “What once was once your true name now is lost.” More than half the song is given over to him singing the title balefully, his voice like a coyote’s cry. He makes it easy to reach for poetic language to describe his music, partly because he trafficked in such imagery himself, but the effects of addiction hardly reveal themselves in his performances. As “Old Worry” ends, Molina sings that title over and over again, each time letting the syllables trail off in subtly different directions. The effect is mesmerising: the sound of an artist fixing your gaze and not letting you break eye contact.
Even during some of his darkest days, Molina remained a commanding singer, his voice rising and falling to convey private worries and dulled hopes. He’s forceful on “Fire On The Rail”, which begins with just him alone – no guitar, no accompaniment. His voice is insistent, like he’s raising the alarm in warning of some impending disaster that will strike not just himself but all of us: a flood, a storm, a plague of locusts.
But some of the most affecting moments on Eight Gates occur when he seems to step away from the microphone to deliver what might be best described as a parenthetical aside. He hums quietly to himself on “Be Told The Truth”, as though we’re catching him in an unguarded moment. On “She Says” he moans softly between lines, dejected and alone.
These songs manage to foreground Molina’s vocals and restore something very physical to his voice. There are a few brief snippets of studio chatter included: odd remarks by Molina that reinforce Eight Gates as a studio album with its seams showing. “The perfect take,” he announces at the start of “She Says”, “is just as long as the person singing is still alive. That’s really it. Are you ready here? Roll me for a few minutes here. See what I get.” A throwaway comment, it sounds like complete nonsense on first listen: perhaps chilling in the wake of his death just a few years later, but redundant given his preference for first takes and his disdain for rehearsals.
But there’s hard wisdom in those words, which hit almost as hard as his lyrics. Such asides have a very particular power on this record: they flesh out the ghost we’ve been imagining since he died in 2013. Eight Gates presents him as a living human being, troubled and troublesome, which might seem like a minor accomplishment but is actually closer to profound given what we know of his life after these sessions. Most of all, it reinforces Molina as an artist rather than as someone overtaken by demons, as a flawed man rather than the myth he often made himself out to be.