This was an unexpected gift. Jason Molina's Songs: Ohia album "The Lioness" is perhaps one of the most influential albums in my life. I happened upon a few songs in 2000, back when Epitonic was one of the major players on the internet, helping people to find previously unknown musicians and bands. Sometime later, in 2001, I finally bought 'The Lioness' and from thereon out, his music matched every major life transition, every upswing and downswing in my emotional state, every joy and loss. For years, I could not listen to The Lioness without becoming overwhelmed by memories.
A couple months ago, 5 years after Jason's death, Secretly Canadian re-released this album, alongside nearly an album's worth of recordings from the same session, the majority of which had never even been played live, let alone released. Jason was known for being extremely prolific, often writing and recording or performing songs in the same day. When playing live, he tended to prefer new songs and would rarely perform songs from his extensive catalogue. It would not surprise me to learn that he had scrapped more songs than he'd recorded, giving us somewhat of a guarantee that we'll continue to have these occasional leaks of old material.
Many words have been spent by others more talented at writing about music than I am, so I won't reiterate at length how the unreleased songs capture Jason's belief in a dichotomy of love songs; whereas the original Lioness release captured the emotional, the longing, these new songs represent the "work" aspect, the effort of keeping the relationship. I think that's pretty true.
What surprised me most about this album was the recording of the historic hymnal 'Wondrous Love.' Jason's faith was always somewhat mysterious, but he held an appreciation for appalachian and southern gospel (evidenced by naming an album after Mahalia Jackson's 'Didn't It Rain'), so his recording of this song isn't a surprise; what's a surprise are the subtle changes he's made to it to reflect his own place in the world.
Below are the lyrics to one of the original versions (via Wiki), from which most lyrics are descended. Note the skipping over of half the verses, and the change of the tense of the final verse from present to future. I've blocked out the lyrics he skipped and bolded Jason's changes:
What wondrous love is this
O my soul! O my soul!
What wondrous love is this!
O my soul!
What wondrous love is this!
That caused the Lord of bliss
to send this precious peace, To my soul, to my soul! To send this precious peace To my soul!To bare the dreadful cursefor my soul, for my soulTo bare the dreadful cursefor my soul. 2. When I was sinking down, Sinking down, sinking down; When I was sinking down Sinking down When I was sinking down, Beneath God's righteous frown, Christ laid aside his crown For my soul, for my soul! Christ laid aside his crown For my soul!
Ye winged seraphs fly, Bear the news, bear the news! Ye winged seraphs fly Bear the news! --Ye winged seraphs fly, like comets through the sky, fill vast eternity! With the news, with the news! Fill vast eternity With the news!
Ye friends of Zion's king, join his praise, join his praise; Ye friends of Zion's king, join his praise; Ye friends of Zion's king, with hearts and voices sing, and strike each tuneful string in his praise, in his praise! and strike each tuneful string in his praise!
5.To God and to the Lamb,I will sing, I will sing;To God and to the Lamb,I will sing--To God and to the Lamb,who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing! while millions join the theme, I will sing!To God and to the Lamb,I will sing6.And whilewhen from death I'm free,I'll sing on, I'll sing on,And whilewhen from death I'm free,I'll sing on.and whilewhen from death I'm free,I'll sing and joyful be, andthroughout eternityI 'llwill sing on, I 'llwill sing on, andthroughout eternityI 'llwill sing on.
While certainly he took a reductionist approach to these lyrics to focus the theme a bit less on the joyous celebration and salvation and a bit more on the evocation of mortality and death, I want to most directly address this last verse--look at this does to the meaning. The original lyrics state 'while from death I'm free,' it evokes a safety in belief, a notion that 'I will never truly die, for my fate is in heaven, and I will therefore sing the praises of God while I am on earth." Jason's changes were purposeful and bleaker. "When from death I'm free, I'll sing on." This life is finite, this life is struggle, but when I die, my spirit will live on. Both verses, of course, call into mind the afterlife, but there's a particular pain and permanence to life evoked in Jason's lyrics through these slight changes.
Jason routinely touched on mortality. One of his most striking early songs was 'Nay 'tis not death,' a song likening drinking to a kind of death of the soul for which one needs repentance. Both these songs make explicit the kind of brackets on life, existence, and our own actions that we tend not to consider often in our daily lives, as keeping such thoughts prominent can drown out the rest of existence, the joyous celebration and salvation we need to survive.
I'm not writer-enough to end this succinctly, but I will say that it kind of feels like wherever I continue to go, whatever changes occur in my life, I'll still have this continuously updating soundtrack. It's pretty depressing, honestly, but whenever you align with someone, even just as a fan, it's hard to let them go. Their perspective can give you pretty important insight, even if it's hard to hear.