It’s (somewhat) fitting that my final work for The Michigan Daily should be a Jason Molina release. For the last three years, I’ve chronicled the Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. frontman’s artistic path on these very pages. It’s been a fruitful endeavor, to be sure: Molina moved from desolate folk to Technicolor alt-country in the time it took me to go from wide-eyed and bushy-tailed to hung-over and unemployed. Quite frankly, What Comes After the Blues, Molina’s second album with his now full-time quintet, should be the payoff — a fitting senior goodbye that allows me to drool over Molina’s considerable talent one last time.
After Molina’s final Songs: Ohia album, Magnolia Electric Co., established him as the new guardian of blustering country rock, I was understandably ecstatic. I was more than patient with the drawn-out, dirge-filled Pyramid Electric Co. that followed, understanding that it was just a stopgap release. I sat slack-jawed in the audience during his October appearance in Detroit. I lost sleep over the first document of Molina’s new band, Magnolia Electric Co., Trials and Errors, a bruising testimonial that, while inconsistent, spoke volumes about the band’s power. To paraphrase our president, I’ve earned some fanboy capital, and now I want to spend it.
Here, good friends, is where the plot thickens: What Comes After the Blues is, well, a bit disappointing. It seems that Molina’s ever-growing obsession with Neil Young has unfortunately extended into emulating Young’s habit of releasing wildly inconsistent albums. What Comes After is a confusing record, opening with a thunderous electric shout and ending with a tiny acoustic whimper. The production, carried out by notable indie-rock vet Steve Albini, often sounds muted and distant. The last three songs — all stripped, acoustic ballads — sound not just sparse, but unfinished (the treatment of “Hammer Down,” a shit-kicking electric storm when performed live, is especially disappointing). There’s a five-minute dud in the middle of the album (“Give Something Else Away Every Day”). Molina — who could once be counted on for several spine-tinglers per album — seems content to drop a bunch of woe-is-me drivel. I want fireworks; I want genius; this is bullshit!
And yet, What Comes After is a strangely alluring, even addictive album. Get over the fact that Molina back-loaded the disc with weepers and you realize that they provide a soft, velvet curtain call for Molina’s affected verse. “Hammer Down” is still instantly gratifying, with Molina crooning, “When it’s been my ghost on the empty road / I think the stars are just the neon lights / Shining through the dance floor / Of heaven on a Saturday night.” Molina even follows “Hammer” — which relies heavily on the repetition of the line “I saw the light” — with the shivering “I Can Not Have Seen the Light.”
At the front end, Molina and his band tear through a couple of the best tracks from Trials and Errors. “The Dark Don’t Hide It,” though slightly subdued here, still rolls like an 18-wheeler on a joyride. “Leave the City,” the culmination of all that artistic progression I blathered about, finally delivers the northern soul Molina’s been tempting us with for so long, accenting his rich, emotive tenor with quivering horn interludes. “The Night Shift Lullaby,” written and sung by longtime Molina collaborator Jennie Bedford, is a little too traditional in its melody and delivery, but the steely electric arrangement brings the song to life. The ethereal violins on “Hard to Love a Man” frames the album’s most passionate lyric: “It was hard to love a man like you / Goodbye was half the words you knew.”
Repeated listens of “Northstar Blues” — the third of the three aforementioned ballads — reveals not only a subtly layered arrangement, but a sickly sweet tune that swings Molina’s starry-eyed romanticism through a soft waltz. Molina intones, “Where were the rest of my songs tonight / I only remember the North Star Blues / That simple old tune on the stage each night / Marking the time that I lost you.” Cue the strings, whisper the high harmony, shoot the ornery rock critic dead. What Comes After the Blues is neither the album I expected nor wanted, yet its flaws melt away on the fingertips of this longtime fan. It seemed fair to expect closure and reward from What Comes After the Blues. I got a batch of ragged, effervescent country songs. And after a couple of weeks, any disappointment that originally festered was tempered by the fact that Molina’s train doesn’t stop here — just mine.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars