Jason Molina’s considerable contribution to American song craft has been more widely recognised since his tragic and untimely passing in 2013. Amanda Shires and the Avett Brothers have both covered Just Be Simple (one of his most beautiful and heartbreaking songs), and when Tim Burgess’ Twitter listening party focused on the Magnolia Electric Co. album, it yielded plaudits from Aidan Moffat alongside responses detailing the intense personal impact Molina’s music had on many people. Always compared with Will Oldham during his lifetime, it is now much rarer to see Molina’s work discussed without an acknowledgement of his own distinctive and idiosyncratic qualities.
Eight Gates collects his final studio work, recorded while Molina was living in London, exploring the city aimlessly. The title adds a gate to the seven gates of London Wall – the eighth gate being Molina’s personal keys to the city. It is inevitably an unfinished work. Studio banter is left in and some songs are mercilessly brief or feel like sketches. Nevertheless, its spacious textures, starkness and the emphasis on Molina’s understated but haunting vocal delivery mean that this music provides a window into Molina’s working process and creates a moving intimacy. It is like listening to the voices of ghosts.
Some elements here will be very familiar to Molina’s admirers – not least the exposed vulnerability of his vocal performances (Molina’s voice sits consistently at the forefront of the mix, a strategy that proves particularly overwhelming on Be Told The Truth). The opening Whisper Away has some of the abrasive electric guitar strafes Molina employed to such striking effect on his Pyramid Electric Co. album. The melodies, protracted and lingering, are often very beautiful (this is especially true of The Mission’s End). His curious vernacular, combining examples of disarming honesty (“whose heartbreak could I not leave behind?”) with moments of mysterious ambiguity (“oh unblessing the bell”) is also very much present, including the consistent preoccupation with the moon and stars.
There are also tantalising glimpses at new directions as well. The influence of later Talk Talk feels pervasive, not least in the lingering organ drones and the lithe brushed drum groove that drives Shadow Answers The Wall, the latter hinting strongly at After The Flood from the Laughing Stock album. There are also some bold and powerful decisions, such as the a cappella introduction to Fire On The Rail or the occasional stronger colour tones provided by cello or organ. Musically, this is certainly closer to the Songs: Ohia or solo albums than it is to any of the more rock ensemble oriented works recorded under the Magnolia Electric Co. moniker. Its colours are dark but still vivid, its atmosphere haunted and mournful.
The collection’s painful eeriness is enhanced by the unedited studio discussions (“the perfect take is just as long as the person singing is still alive”, Molina says at the outset of She Says, “roll me for a few minutes here, see what I get”). Ahead of the closing The Crossroad + The Emptiness, Molina can be heard saying (semi-seriously) “alright, everybody shut up, this is my record!”, demonstrating the importance of his own creative control. These moments, essentially of light-hearted joshing, assume a heavier weight in the context of this posthumous release.