It doesn’t take a particularly attentive reader to realise that depression is very near to this blog’s and its author’s heart. It’s there as a watermark on every page, a presence looming ghost-like at the fringe of every experience and the imprimatur of large swathes of what is uttered in witness of that experience. Even when in abeyance, I wear some mark of it in both words and deed, which is something I’ve made my peace with - such a mark speaks less of damnation than it does of a theme, one amongst many, that is destined to play out in the course of my life. Depression isn’t the desperate end game to which one’s life has been committed, but rather a facet, one part of the whole that helps determine the shape and depth that a life takes through its living, but only has bearing on that shape and depth in concert with many other facets of one’s life. Its presence is stubborn and often deflating, but it is not the Rosetta Stone or summa of experience that, in your worst moments, you can very often imagine it to be.
When one can attain the distance required to consider depression within the broader shape and depth that our lives take, this goes some way to achieving what Freud called “the work of mourning”. Freud’s work on mourning is important and insightful, particularly in respect to the link via family resemblance he sees in mourning to the condition of melancholia, where one mourns and mourns without working through the loss experienced. Melancholia emerges as a downing of tools in the face of loss, letting loss, absence and abandonment become the envelope in which experience is carried out: it casts a pall over the entirety of experience, rather than being the component part that one’s work can make of mourning. Anyone who has endured depression understands this: the closed-loop of thoughts and feelings; the way it saturates your being with unresolvable problems and fixations; the consuming anxieties and anger that Freud saw as being directed back inward, their passage out into the world closed up and looped back in on the self. Depression is a legacy, an inheritance from a past that cannot be adapted to the present and therefore persists, unable to be sloughed or worked off. It is a history with no language to articulate the present, and so surrenders the dynamism and opportunity of the present to the monolithic language signed by the dead hand of the past.
The heavy, stifling legacy of melancholia and depression and its contrast with the hard but transformative work of mourning is something that Jason Molina has given a particular frisson to over the course of his career. Beginning with Songs: Ohia, Molina has built his style upon spiky, fraught folk songs with hypnotic, repeated chord progressions churning, rising and falling (and often surging, erupting and crashing within the very same song, in semblance to the erratic mood shifts characteristic of depression), creating a tight loop around which his cracked tenor spiralled from the dreadful depths to the soaring, soul-scouring heights of his tremulous upper range. On songs like ‘The Black Crow’, ‘Being in Love’, ‘Back on Top’, ‘Coxcomb Red’ (all on the desperate, magnificent Lioness), ‘Ring the Bell’ or the harrowing suite of Impala, Molina snares his voice and gnarled, portentous lyrics (at times owing much to Ted Hughes’ dark, diabolical evocations of the natural world) in the closed loop of songs which absorb Molina’s lyrical despair and grievances and repeat and recycle them. These songs riff on their dark tone until the accumulated weight of the songs’ suffering and Molina’s highest and most lonesome howl batter the listener. If these songs attest to the horrible weight of the past, then the urgency of that voice, the blue-collar and rural evocations of the lyrics beat savagely against the limits of that past, trying to escape it, to fashion melancholia into mourning (which admittedly doesn’t sound like the greatest trade-up, but as Freud would argue, it would be a start).
Up through Didn’t It Rain (mockingly and knowingly sharing its name with Mahalia Jackson’s glorious, soulful, life-affirming gospel song) Molina crafted a compelling and true account of depression and the desperate (and rarely successful) attempt to beat through its limits, set in stark, haunted, minimalist arrangements of a piece with the black-as-pitch states of mind he was articulating. On his last album as Songs: Ohia, his magnum opus, Magnolia Electric Co, Molina broadened the palette of his recording to encompass a full Crazy Horse-style band to flesh out his signature songwriting style. As much as the songs are given richness, drive and even occasional groove (such as the relentless opener ‘Farewell Transmission’), Molina still writes in loops, a swirling, inescapable vortex of sound clawing and gnawing at Molina’s road-weary travellers trying to outrun depression’s grip, fixed by “midnight with a dead moon in its jaws” - time locked and looped at the ruinous witching hour, spurring Molina’s cast of characters to run just that bit harder.
But those weary travellers, haunted and hounded as they are by their stubborn past, are voiced with a new resolve to match the more strident surroundings on Magnolia Electric Co, “busy trying to make the change” as ‘I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost’ has it. In finding this resolve, Molina’s cast finally undertake the work of mourning in the face of the depression that charges after them through the night. Images of power stations, the forge and coalface recur throughout, with Molina “working in the cold grey rock” and “working in the hot mill steam”, while John Henry brings his hammer down harder and harder on ‘John Henry Split My Heart’ so as to effect the breakthrough. Never before, and never since has Molina felt close the cracking the bonds of depression, of surmounting its “static and distance” and working his demons through, of entering the language of mourning through which he can touch upon the present.
On album closer ‘Hold On Magnolia’, he seems close to grace. Where Molina’s songs looped in tight, claustrophobic fashion in the past, ‘Hold On Magnolia’ is elegant and stately, the song of a man finishing the album of his life in the grandest, most sweeping way possible. Ascending through a languid, building countrified chord progression, the song comes across almost as a benediction, affirming endurance (“hold on to that great highway moon”, inverting the malign moon of ‘Farewell Transmission’) and friendship, a stubbornness in the face of depression that continues to strive to be something more than just a sufferer as the lights flicker back on after the solsticial black out of the opening track. Of the doubts that plagued Molina throughout his previous work, of the vice of the seemingly-insurmountable past, he at long last believes he has “worked it out with all of them”. There is a mournfulness here (the ringing station bell, the lonesome whistle and the “last light I see before the dark finally gets a hold of me” - indeed you could as easily read the song as resignation), but it is Freudian ‘mourning’, the sadness in service of something else, the hard work and heavy lifting required make sense of loss and sadness and to incorporate it into a language that speaks to one’s ability to negotiate the present. “It’s almost time” Molina repeats at the song’s rolling, never-wants-to-finish conclusion, submitting to the climbing and chiming arrangement, away from all the darkness that went before.
In some of my darker days I would rise early in the morning and try to run the depression out of me. The closed loops of the past would constrict beneath the ever tighter loops of breathing and the rhythm of my stride as I made my way around the park in the early winter light. Making a full 6km loop of that park without stopping was my goal each time, and as I ran gasping, thinking how easy it would be to stop and submit to the inertia of my condition, it was Songs: Ohia’s ‘Blue Chicago Moon’ that I would run through my head (I can’t train with headphones for some reason):
If the blues are your hunter, then you will come face to face
With that darkness and desolation, and the endless,
But you are not helpless: I’ll help you to try,
Try to beat it.
I’d sing it to myself over and over again, picking up a little each time, until I’d gone through the 6km and the endorphin rush would hit me. Like so many of Molina’s songs, ‘Blue Chicago Moon’ had become part of the fabric of my life and my struggle with depression, one that Molina’s work was invaluable in helping me come to terms with, and to haul myself out of, the worst parts of the condition.
As such, it was with great sadness that I read last year of Molina’s struggles with depression, substance abuse, medical problems and their associated costs which had hindered his songwriting and stopped him performing. As part of his recovery he had taken to working on a farm in West Virginia, tending chickens and goats. The hard, hard work through which he can haul himself up and give himself his voice again - a voice that has affected so many of us for the better.
Wherever Jason Molina is right now, I hope his work and strength are pulling him out of the grip of depression’s awful closed loop, to get back to the grace of “Hold On Magnolia”. I also hope he knows just how much he and his music have meant to so many of us - “I’ll help you to try, try to beat it”.