Jason Molina - Eight Gates Music Album Reviews

The late songwriter recorded the unreleased Eight Gates in the ’00s. The posthumous version sounds by turns haunting and unfinished. 

Jason Molina’s songs are like unfinished houses. Wander the hallways late at night and you might open a doorway that leads nowhere, or look to the ceiling and find the moon staring back. Though the late Ohioan songwriter could write a rousing melody, he rarely offered them fully formed. Instead, he drew your ear toward the cracks in the edifice: placing an expanse of near-silence where a chorus might go, or emphasizing the empty space between someone’s high harmony vocal and his own distinctively damaged tenor. On Molina’s best albums, this vacancy is a virtue, imbuing the music with a sense of magic and mystery to match his lyrical preoccupation with the phantasms of memory and regret. The holes in the wall are invitations for spirits to come in.
Molina wrote and recorded Eight Gates while living in London in the late 2000s, where—according to press materials from his longtime label Secretly Canadian—he claimed he was recovering from a bite from a rare spider, writing in a letter about doctor appointments and drug prescriptions for which no medical records exist. Whether Molina was suffering a delusion or engaging in artistic myth-making is unclear, but he was on the cusp of real and dire challenges to his physical health either way. Ten months after the January 2009 recording sessions that produced this material, he cancelled a planned tour, blaming unnamed health issues. He never recorded or performed publicly again after that. In 2013, he died, at age 39, from complications related to alcoholism. Secretly Canadian presents Eight Gates, unheard until this posthumous release, as something like his final statement.

Like Molina’s classic albums, Eight Gates documents songs that are still in the process of becoming, a snapshot of their neverending journey toward a nonexistent final form. But given the nature of the release, it’s unclear what is an artistic effect and what is a more literal case of unfinished work. The album’s nine songs pass in 25 minutes, with several barely crossing the two-minute line—practically unheard-of for an artist who regularly sprawled out to six or seven. Some songs are plainly not done, like “She Says,” which fades out after a bit of studio banter and a single acoustic-strummed verse. Others sound more or less complete, like “Shadow Answers the Wall,” built on pensive organ chords and an uncharacteristically lithe drum pattern, coming off like Molina’s take on the rhythm-forward music Radiohead was making around the same time.

The songs of Eight Gates are often beautiful, but they can feel a bit like cues in a film score without an accompanying visual, hanging around for long enough to establish a mood but disappearing before they have a chance to progress. The palette is drastically limited—guitar, organ, cello, a bit of bass, hardly any percussion—and deployed with painterly aversion to excess, allowing subtle changes to instrumental inflection to serve as major events. These sounds are miles from the rangy rock of Magnolia Electric Co., the amorphous band Molina fronted for much of the 2000s. They have more in common with the pitch-black folk of Ghost Tropic and The Lioness, albums Molina released under his Songs: Ohia alias at the beginning of the decade.

The most confounding and moving material is the most difficult to assess in terms of completeness. “Whisper Away,” the opener, and “Thistle Blue,” the penultimate song, are like a room and its reflection in a broken mirror. Their arrangements, and introductions, are nearly identical: drones of organ and strings, with sharp, delicate electric guitar chords occasionally slashing through. Both move slowly, even by Molina’s standards, building tension without release. The latter contains the album’s most evocative lines: “Black bird and thistle blue/Whose wilderness has my heartbreak wandered through?/Whose questions have I left to go unanswered?” The former addresses a similar transience, one of Molina’s great themes. It could also be read as a premonition of death, or a comment on the ephemeral character of the music itself: “Whisper away the howling universe/Pale against something, pale against what/Hiss and the fading, the dying radio.” Their haunting arrangements are rich and deliberate, but as compositions they are not wholly realized; neither song feels complete without the other, and even then the image is fragmented. Is their uncanny duality a result of Molina's mastery over his art, or was he simply still working through this material when he went into the studio that day? For a listener approaching Eight Gates a decade later, how much does it matter?

Secretly Canadian muddles the issue slightly by giving Eight Gates the veneer of an album, rather than presenting it as a collection of archival material, holding it to a standard it shouldn’t have to meet. Molina released albums prolifically before his withdrawal from public life, sometimes at a rate of two per year. He was not shy about putting out material he’d recorded quickly, or that which showed its rough edges clearly. He once released a collection of album outtakes that was four times longer than the album itself. In spite of this open-book approach, the Eight Gates material sat on the shelf for four years of his life. It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether he considered it a whole and successful body of work, or whether he wanted people to hear it at all. Still, regardless of his or his label’s intentions, it’s possible to hear Eight Gates as a fitting tribute. In its blank spaces, it reflects the spectral quality of his greatest music, albeit sometimes for different reasons.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Jason Molina - Eight Gates Music Album Reviews Jason Molina - Eight Gates Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 Rating:

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