“No matter how dark the storm gets overhead
They say someone’s watching from the calm at the edge
What about us when we’re down here in it
We gotta watch our own backs“
The opening lines to Songs: Ohia’s swansong, ‘Didn’t It Rain’, perfectly summarise the lyrical bent of Jason Molina, the band’s visionary and sole consistent member. His songs so often mixed fragility and resilience – a duality that both empowered the listener and exposed them to Molina’s troubled psyche.
Released in 2002, ‘Didn’t It Rain’ was a new direction for Molina. Those who had followed his output under the Songs: Ohia moniker – first adopted in 1994 – would already be accustomed to such changes. ‘Didn’t It Rain’ followed up from two albums, ‘Lioness’ and ‘Ghost Tropic’, both released in 2000. Each ventured down a different path musically and lyrically (both with superb results) so it was no surprise that Molina once again chose to move forward with ‘Didn’t It Rain’, which was more spacious and organic than the experimental sets that preceded it.
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The album was sparse, even by Molina’s own standards; most tracks featured no more than a few instruments, often with sound only just coaxed into existence. This bare-bones presentation gave the album clarity and allowed the songs to hit the listener with far more force than the restrained performances would suggest.
Molina was no stranger to emotional pain and with ‘Didn’t It Rain’ he explored this with dignity and devastating honesty. ‘Blue Chicago Moon’ is such a strikingly honest and personal insight into Molina’s depression that it almost feels like an intrusion upon his privacy to hear it, especially after Molina’s passing in 2013 from alcohol related organ failure. Pivotal to the song is the streak of hopefulness that appears throughout so much of Molina’s work. He may sing about his “endless, endless depression” but it’s the defiant cry of “you are not helpless” that really makes the song hit home.
The album has desolate beauty to it; the minimalist presentation is a joy in itself and the often repetitive nature of Molina’s songs gives ‘Didn’t It Rain’ a deeply meditative, mesmeric aura. ‘Steve Albini’s Blues’ vividly brings to mind the trace-like sensation of late night driving down long, straight highways; Molina’s repeating chant of “from the bridge out of Hammond” interspersed with “See them brake lights burning, feel my motor turnin’ / See the big city moon / see how it close comes / watch my wiper blades pound it like a drum / think about what’s darkening my life“
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On ‘Didn’t It Rain’, more than any other of his albums, Molina showed an almost eerie ability to channel the soul the great delta blues artists. The album was recorded in Chicago and the city plays a pivotal thematic role in the record , so that it’s no surprise Molina was so inspired by the likes of Robert Johnson. However, the fact that Molina has all the soul and honesty to match these lofty influences is astonishing. ‘Didn’t It Rain’ is not a blues record per se but it is one recorded by a man with the blues,; and he channelled that into something very special.
Although Molina would continue to work extensively for another decade at least, ‘Didn’t it Rain’ was to be the last of his albums to overtly sit in the Songs: Ohia timeline. A year later he would release ‘The Magnolia Electric Co.’, a country rock masterpiece that was yet another left turn in a career full of those. The album was a triumph- the most daring and extreme album of Molina’s career, it stands today as his best known record.
Despite the lofty heights of it’s younger sibling, ‘Didn’t It Rain’ remains Jason Molina’s masterpiece. Expertly crafted, the album is a near-flawless verbalisation of catharsis through music and words. It’s brave, memorable and as vital now as it’s ever been.