Jason Molina has been one of Americana’s most prolific and accomplished songwriters since his 1996 Songs: Ohia debut. In that time he has released, either under Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co., or as a solo artist, somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 studio albums, EPs, singles, and live albums - a remarkable feat for anyone not named Robert Pollard. For a restlessly creative artist who has dabbled in a wide variety of indie and roots genres, Molina’s best albums have always favored a sense of song economy over musical diversity. His best albums are just as likely to be stark and meditative (2002’s haunting Songs: Ohia album Didn’t It Rain) as they are raucous and Crazy Horse-inspired (2003’s Magnolia Electric Co). The commonality shared by those two albums, besides being full of great songs, is their respective brevity - neither contains more than 8 songs or lasts longer than 45 minutes. For all the reoccurring imagery that runs through his catalog, Molina’s biggest asset in creating great albums has always been his ability to self-edit.
The recently released Josephine is another solid addition to the Molina catalog, and one that breaks from these traditions of concision and singularity. For the most part the decision to include so many songs works - in what is easily his most diverse set Molina touches on country, folk, blues, rock, soul, and gospel over Josephine’s 14 tracks and 46 minute running time. The first 9 songs make quite an opening run, and set up Josephine to be at least the equal of What Comes After The Blues, if not his best since Magnolia Electric Co. “O Grace!” and “The Rock of Ages” are soulful, gospel-tinged openers that set the tone with their keyboards and backing vocals. “Whip-Poor-Will”, a terrific folk song rescued here from obscurity (it was an outtake from Magnolia Electric Co.), contains some of his most evocative lyrics, and “The Handing Down” recalls the heavier blues-rock of that same album. After this long opening run of strong songs come a handful of slower numbers where the album loses a bit of steam, but the closing duo of “Shiloh” and “An Arrow In The Gale” bring the album to fitting and memorable close.
Josephine has been highly publicized as being a song cycle inspired by the unfortunate passing of bassist Evan Farrell in late 2007, and indeed his memory (or, in one of Molina’s favorite recurring images, his ghost) is all over these songs. But in a surprising twist from a songwriter who usually favors dark narratives and end-of-the-world imagery, Josephine seems to convey a good deal of hope. Many of the songs deal with moving on and finding hope in places where it shouldn’t be, which is only exemplified by the crisp production of long time collaborator Steve Albini. Josephine sounds fantastic, and combined with Molina’s strongest set of songs in a few years, not to mention the extra incentive to create a fitting tribute to a fallen friend, all come together to make it one of the summer’s better Americana releases.