Rock 'n' Roll died on a Tuesday of an unknown coronary complication. The day of the funeral was gray and overcast, accenting the mood of the procession filing mournfully into the already crowded church. Rock's survivors sat in the first pew, holding and comforting each other as best they could. Punk sat in its wheelchair, dutifully tending to the young and naïve Post-Rock, who was confused as to why everyone was so upset. Post-Punk and New Wave sat underneath the watchful gaze of Funk and Avant-garde, as Indie-Rock gave its shoulder as a sponge to the flowing tears of Alt-Country.
As a tribute to the deceased, many artists brought along a variety of albums they'd recorded in Rock's honor, as both centerpieces to the occasion and points of reflection. Only one of these albums was ultimately chosen to accompany the service, though, the distinction falling upon The Magnolia Electric Co. by Jason Molina's musical front, Songs: Ohia. The album served and will continue to serve as a succinct and perfect eulogy for the passing of Rock, utilizing buried lyrical metaphors and dazzling yet simplistic melodies reminiscent of the earlier heyday of Rock's career, spanning the late 50's to the early 70's.
"Hold on Magnolia," which concludes the album, particularly addresses the last laments the tired genre might have considered. Beneath a sparse piano interspersed with warm string arrangements, Molina pleads his case that the root of Rock's loss of heart may have been in its self-perception as a business, with the sole priority of signing its "name to the bottom line." This is not wholly an indictment of Rock's spirit, which also saw hope in the future right up until the end; the realization that the future "might be holding the last light I see/ Before the dark finally gets a hold of me" meets a barely-there-snare just before acquiescing into death with the final lament, "I think its almost time."
The album begins the coping process earlier than this, though, with the initial composition, "Farewell Transmission." Juxtaposing sullen lyrical content and a weeping slide guitar with an upbeat rhythm, Molina's moving delivery of lines such as "The big star is falling/ Through the static and distance" punctuates both the context and content of the occasion, while taking care to inter the bones but not the memory of the departed. This is a thinly veiled conceit though, as the song is among the first to allude to the healing powers of Molina's particular brand of singer/songwriter rock in the promise that "I will resurrect it, I'll have a good go at it." The sentiment is quickly balanced with other self-deprecating/grounding assurances such as "The real truth about it is no one gets it right," providing him an easy out.
Molina's honesty emerges further in what amounts to the hardest-rocking song on the album, as well as the most organic and human. "John Henry Split My Heart" connects Rock with its roots in folk music, never letting it be forgotten that every person and every genre have their own nine-pound hammer. Guitar tremolos and piano crescendos crash and flutter around the old myth of man vs. machine, Molina allowing in his own version a victory by John Henry, who splits the singer's heart in two. In the song, when prompted by John Henry as to what he plans to do now with the two halves, Molina answers, "Half I'm going to use/ To pay this band/ Half I'm saving because I'm going to owe them," expressing his indebtedness to Rock, and the human spirit that underlies it.
With this spirit in mind, the album speaks to the survivors, prescribing measures by which others can avoid Rock's fate. "Just Be Simple" is a command as much as it is a request, alternately forceful and quiet, and taking full advantage of both approaches. Molina begins to grow indignant in this relatively brief song, forcing everyone to examine the fact that certain fateful consequences were brought about by particular actions. Over a two-chord drone that never draws too much attention away from lyrics such as "If heaven's really coming back/ I hope it has a heart attack," Molina makes no allowances for excuses or hurt feelings. He stresses how one cannot simply look backwards to move forward, damning all retro movements with the simple non-rhyming doublet, "How there's really no difference in who he was once/ And who he's become." The family of Rock was not pleased, but for once, they were forced to open their ears to something new, and take heed of the visceral and well-intended words of caution.
Once again, Molina does not allow himself any more slack than he would give to others, as evidenced by the uncomfortably intimate song, "I've Been Riding With the Ghost." Here he takes aim at his obvious corpus delicti, remarking to his audience that, "I've been riding with the ghost/ I've been doing whatever he told me." He adds further, "See I ain't getting better. I am only getting behind." With haunting female backing vocals, the song kicks in gear with an old-fashioned driving beat that could have been lifted from any early Springsteen album, as he sings about how he is "trying to make a change" about past mistakes involving whoring of talent in exchange for the glamour of fame and acceptance. While he realizes that the goal may never be achieved, he also understands that the true reward is in simply trying.
The remainder of the album pays deference to this final notion. "A new season has to begin," is Molina's appeal, expressed in the song "Almost Was Good Enough (Once)," which summarizes the message of the entire album. With an almost morbid obsession of the recognition that "almost no one makes it out," Molina never once allows any human doubt to infringe upon the ultimate prize, growth and the search for something better. It was for this reason that the album was chosen as tribute to Rock's fleeting yet inspiring life. The Magnolia Electric Co. succeeds where other albums of a similar nature fail because it has the courage to point towards what is wrong with itself and the medium through which it is presented. It does so in a novel way that is still tethered to the common and recognizable elements of everyday life, which is why the album had such a profound and motivating effect on all those genres with filial ties to Rock.
As to the how the service ended, I can't tell you for sure, as I left early. But I was told by one attendee who is sometimes prone to exaggeration that upon completion of the album's presentation, Molina (in his role as Songs: Ohia) recited a chorus amongst the obsequies of "Rock is dead. Long live ROCK!" One can only hope.