On Didn’t It Rain, Songs: Ohia crafted hymns of solitude

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Jason Molina wrote about the moon. He also wrote songs about love and heartbreak, grief and loss. He wrote songs about what it means to be human and songs about standing on the brink of apocalypse, songs about driving, sometimes alone and sometimes with someone or something that’s haunting him. But somewhere within all these songs or reflecting down from overhead is the blue light of the moon—whether in the midwest or in a desolate corner of the tropics, it was his constant companion.

There’s not a ray of daylight on Songs: Ohia‘s Didn’t It Rain, Jason Molina’s final record under that name. Its seven songs seem to appear only through starlight and candlewick, hushed and intimate, like thoughts that swirl around your head long after the rest of the city is asleep. Several of them are actually quiet enough to play when your neighbors or roommates are asleep, but the elliptical statements that Molina weaves through his stark ballads echo long after—darkness, doubt, hope and humanity stripped to their most bare and honest.

The last record recorded before Molina transitioned into the ragged electric rock of Magnolia Electric Co., Didn’t It Rain wasn’t originally intended as the project’s swan song. Were it not for a scheduling conflict with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio, Ghost Tropic would have been where Ohia ended, but happenstance delayed Magnolia Electric Co. for another year. When the group had to postpone recording with Albini, another studio became available in Philadelphia, but with yet another catch: The band couldn’t make those dates either. Molina didn’t cancel, instead taking advantage of the opportunity to record without any pre-written material, working on new songs during the sessions themselves—simple, vulnerable and unguarded folk dirges shot through with the soul of early 20th century blues.

Didn’t It Rain is a gorgeous album, achingly so. Molina’s most graceful and impeccably performed set of slowly rendered minor chords and ringing, open notes. The album is named after a traditional gospel tune, famously performed by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, which doesn’t actually appear here in any form. The album instead comprises a set of hymns composed by Molina himself, prayers to the emptiness and homilies to a stoic and constant, lonesome moon shining above him.

Molina never made an album prettier than Didn’t It Rain, and to be sure, he made a lot of albums whose defining qualities were the way he depicted a deep and overwhelming sadness through beautifully sparse melodies. Though Didn’t It Rain is neither his saddest album nor his sparsest, the elegance of the songs’ arrangements—the difference between barely there and overwhelming being little more than just a few notes at times—is what makes it feel like the most resonant. Its opening title track, just a recurring three chords over the course of over seven minutes, feels like a Great American Epic in spite of its simplicity, the backing vocals and plucks of mandolin from Jim Krewson and Jennie Benford building it out into something deceptively grand. Its saga is one of refusing to give into despair, Molina singing, defeated in the first verse, “If they think you got it, they’re gonna beat it out of you/Through work and debt, whatever all else there is,” only to later offer the kind of warmth and grace that he might have needed, himself: “If I see you struggle, I will not turn my back/I’ve seen a good man and a bad man on the same path.

Though Molina and his collaborators recorded the album in Philadelphia, its heart lie on the highway between Chicago and Bloomington, Indiana. One of its standout tracks, “Steve Albini’s Blues,” is a mesmerizing two-chord tribute to his adopted home, from the title salute to the engineer with whom he’d reconvene within a year’s time, to the imagery of “the bridge out of Hammond” and the “big city moon, ‘tween the radio towers, ‘tween the big diesel trucks.” “Two Blue Lights” exists on the barest suggestion of an arrangement, Molina’s spacious guitar licks flickering beneath his gorgeous harmonization with Benford and imagery of the lights of the city bus, “a dead archer in the tower” and that other ever-present blue light: the moon overhead.

Four of the album’s tracks are painted in azure, their titles literally containing the word “blue” in some form, and if it isn’t Molina’s saddest album, it’s perhaps his most soulfully melancholy. Its persistent lonesome feeling is more like that of a weary traveler, though given his untimely death at 39 in 2013, it’s still a bit jarring to hear him open “Blue Factory Flame” with the line, “When I die, put my bones in an empty street/To remind me of how it used to be.” (Though just a couple lines later, he puts an almost lighthearted spin on the process of mourning: “Bring a Coleman lantern and a radio/A Cleveland game and two fishing poles.”) And on “Cross the Road, Molina,” he observes neither street nor sky, instead taking a turn to the metaphysical: “Set my pulse to the Great Lakes pulse.” Nothing here is quite so chilling as his visions on 2000’s Ghost Tropic, nor as devastating as the naked vulnerability of 2006’s Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go. It’s a half-hour walk through a city’s empty streets, some of them romantic and beautifully raw, some of them reminders of what’s gone or what will never be.

That romantic aspect is amplified by the idea of how the album came to be, Molina and a handful of other musicians that he’d never worked with before building magic with scarcely any raw materials. If Molina didn’t ever preconceive of the album, however, the finished product proved strong enough in his own eyes that he opted not to follow it.

“[T]hat kind of working on the fly, literally cobbling together a record in a studio that I’m not familiar with, with musicians I’ve never met, and material that I was literally writing while I was in the studio — that, to me, was the most successful version of that I’d ever pulled off,” Molina said in a 2006 interview.

Didn’t It Rain was the first album I listened to on my record player in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, during a time when loneliness became a universal trait. Over the course of nine months that isolation and anxiety would turn to tedium, and I’d make my way through every record I owned—my wife encouraging me to play Prince over quieter, sadder music whenever possible. But hearing Molina’s guitar and voice on Didn’t It Rain soothed when little else could, its stately hymns of solitude not a distraction from desolation but a means of finding comfort within it. Twenty years later, that Great Lakes pulse only resonates at a greater frequency.

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Songs: Ohia : Didn’t It Rain

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