Farewell Transmission

IF YOU BELIEVE the legend (and I have no reason to doubt it), in July 2002, Jason Molina—who’d recorded six previous albums under the moniker Songs: Ohia—set up in a Chicago recording studio, where a rotating cast of musical collaborators joined him. Many of these musicians hadn’t before played together, and in some cases, hadn’t even heard the songs they’d convened to record. In the span of a single week, with producer Steve Albini at the helm, they laid the album that would widely be received as Molina’s masterpiece, The Magnolia Electric Co. In March 2023, music journalists marked the twenty-year anniversary of that record, along with the tenth anniversary of Molina’s death to alcoholism-related organ failure.

Molina wound up recording another five albums in that decade-long interim, under a new project named after The Magnolia Electric Co.—a choice that, for all the confusion it caused, suggests that Molina grasped the gravity of what he’d achieved: the rare convergence of ability and possibility. As if he’d metamorphosed all the material he’d grown in the preceding five years (or maybe his whole life) into something even more extraordinary than the previous form suggested possible. Once he’d busted his husk, stretched out, and availed himself of that new and incomparable range, there was no going back.

I grew up on punk and indie music typically recorded in somebody’s garage on a four-track, or else in recording studios where bands played straight through their sets to save money, and postproduction was minimal to nonexistent. This did not always result in excellent records, but it did impart the probably erroneous belief that rawer recordings equaled more honest music. How could you trust a band who made slick records with lots of back-end production? How could you know who they really were? What they were really capable of?

I can now cite plenty of examples to the contrary, but that formative bias may be why I fell in love with the record’s opening track, “Farewell Transmission.” “We put, I think, about 12 people in a room and recorded that song live,” Molina told The Faster Times, “completely live, and unrehearsed. I showed ’em the chord progression, they had no idea when it would end, and we just cut it.” He describes his role as a kind of conductor, before changing tack to say that he “ain’t no conductor” but rather, “the fuckin’ brakeman.”

With this story in mind, I listen to the song again. I imagine the room where it happened. I sense the band’s vigilant attention as the spare chords and basic drumbeat begin. I hear the shift in that attention as they leap into the fray, building the song to its agonized fullness, until vigilance abandons itself into the unthinking ecstasy of one-minded improvisation. In the end, the conductor-brakeman signals the spirit and closure of their experiment by repeating the simple command: Listen. Listen. Listen.

I’ve heard it said that if you “cry” explicitly on the page, the reader can’t. As if the meaning were not communicated writer to reader, but rather constructed between them; if one party releases the pressure, the other can’t achieve catharsis. You hear this in the demo version, whose lyrics enunciate what the final version implies. The song loses its haunted quality, and cannot cross the veil into the mystical over lines such as:

I will let everything be what it will

It really is this cold and dark in hell

At least this town’s being honest
    with itself

With some of you it’s getting hard
     to tell

In the final cut, he skips all this and plunges headlong into the terrible recognition that there will be “no end to the desert I’ll cross.” A few moments later, he cries out to his mother (the first in the family to succumb to drinking illness), an utterance of such biblical foreboding, it is easy to read in retrospect as an omen of his approaching annihilation. “Mama, here comes midnight / with the dead moon in its jaws / must be the big star about to fall.”

Having spent a portion of my youth doing improvisational theater, I know that genius is not static, is not something to be, but rather something to access. It emerges from the foundation of many hours of dedicated practice. But practice alone cannot account for that mysterious force that sometimes possesses the players, using their bodies and the space between them to create something greater
than the sum of their parts. Molina’s masterpiece was co-created. It is a testament to the genius of the musicians in that room, and of Steve Albini, that they were not only capable of producing the magic in the moment, but also of capturing it in the recording. At the time it had seemed a new height. That it would later appear more like a precipice only added to the “tragic beauty” of the recording, as one writer recently reflected.

The tradition of romanticizing the ruin of artists is long held. I was guilty of it myself as a younger person, but the up close reality of watching addiction destroy my loved ones relieved me of that myth. End-stage alcoholism is a grim and lonely place, and the genius of Molina’s best work was not the product of that isolation—it was communal. I wish Molina had heeded his own warning. I wish he were alive now, in other rooms of collaboration, conducting or throwing the brakes, besting or never again reaching his former greatness. I wish he had let his friends join him in that desert, lift him up, and carry him across.

Lisa Wells is a poet and nonfiction writer. She’s the author of Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, a finalist for the 2022 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Her collection of poetry, The Fix, won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and a new collection, The Fire Passage, won the Levis Prize in Poetry and will be published by Four Way Books in early 2025. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.