Magnolia Electric Co. – What Comes After the Blues

Magnolia Electric Co.
What Comes After the Blues

In retrospect, perhaps What Comes After the Blues wasn’t such a good title for this album after all. This sure seemed like the album with which Jason Molina, the Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. frontman would break from his world-weary past and unleash his sparkling alt-country on the world. The supposed breakthrough has been a long time coming; after nearly a decade of desolate slow-folk, Molina busted out in 2003 with his last Songs: Ohia release, the magnificent Magnolia Electric Co.. With Steve Albini on the boards and a group of rollicking electric rockers surrounding him, Molina distanced himself from his former sound. January’s Trials and Errors, a live release documenting the first tour with his now full-time band, had some rough spots, to be sure, but it was wide-eyed live lightning by just about anyone’s measure.

Which is why What Comes After the Blues seemed so fitting. Because while no one would ever expect Molina to get optimistic all of a sudden, things were starting to look up. Magnolia contained moments of hope, clarity, compassion. It seemed only natural that Molina would be referring to his often desolate past with the title of his new album.

Perhaps not, friends, unless you’re prepared to admit that what comes after the blues is … more blues. Indeed, not only has Molina failed to pull himself up from the darker moments of life, What Comes After the Blues is itself a confused affair, its moments of wit and insight tempered by moments of plight and misery. The song titles say it all: “The Dark Don’t Hide It,” “Give Something Else Away Every Day,” “I Can Not Have Seen the Light.” Poor sequencing and lyrical miscues – troubles Molina has never had in the past – further complicate the issue, making What Comes After the Blues more than a little bit disappointing upon first listen.

Subsequent spins, however, reveal a depth of emotion and sound fitting of Molina’s growing talent. Whereas Magnolia was instantly gratifying – a sea change for Molina both sonically and emotionally – What Comes After the Blues is scattered and tangled. His soulful tenor continues to rise here, this time carrying the surprisingly uplifting waltz of “Northstar Blues” and buoying the otherwise downtrodden “I Can Not Have Seen the Light.” His band, curiously absent during the last third of the album (a trio of acoustic tracks that sound disturbingly unfinished), still light shit up on the rollicking “The Dark Don’t Hide It” and “The Nightshift Lullaby” (written and composed by Jennie Bedford).

“Hammer Down” seems indicative of everything both disappointing and wonderful about What Comes After the Blues. A hair-raising, full-band onslaught live, the song here is criminally abbreviated (2:41) and features only Molina and an acoustic guitar. Despite the disappointing arrangement, however, Molina is in tip-top form, successfully conveying the down-and-out wanderer of his younger years with a melodically complex, brilliantly performed alt-country slow-dance.

Given Molina’s recent track record, it did not seem unreasonable to expect great things from What Comes After the Blues. Despite its flaws, however, What Comes After the Blues succeeds on a number of levels, not the least of which being a bridge between his solo-acoustic past and his Neil Young-ian alt-country future. The idea that a full-time group of collaborators would steady Molina’s often-shaky hand, was probably bollocks from the start. Molina’s vision is too singular, too neurotic, and too personal to truly be altered by a group of fellow musicians. What Comes After the Blues isn’t the country-rock masterpiece fans were expecting, but given the fabulous progression of Molina’s talent, we should be grateful for what he does throw our way, inconsistent and confused though it may be.