Already known for operating at a consistently mournful pitch, dark things might be expected from a tribute album by Jason Molina, especially considering it’s one devoted to Evan Farrell, his band’s former bassist, who died in late 2007. Yet Molina, the brains and heart behind Magnolia Electric Co. (formerly Songs: Ohia), pays homage to his friend on Josephine by tempering that sadness with a surprising level of light, crafting a narrative that’s equal parts crushing and uplifting.
Sadness, of course, still abounds. “I feel as lonely as the world’s first ghost,” the singer notes near the beginning of opener “O Grace,” and this sets a clear tone, a morbid, offhand fascination with the murky borders of life. Molina’s lyrical milieu is familiar by now: the endless desolation of the road, dreary bars, empty hotel rooms, a gloomy landscape by which he represents the Midwest in a state of perpetual dusk. That feeling is retained here. The band reworks the already forlorn “Whip-poor-will” into a lugubrious crawl, one where lines like “For all those up in heaven not busy ringing bells/The rest of us down here ain’t doin’ very well” gain a poignant new significance.
As good as Molina is at working with gloom, Josephine is thankfully not a one-note slog through the valley of the shadow of death. Rather than wallow morosely, he uses death as the focal point for an expressive song cycle that takes in the whole realm of life, with darkness frequently felt but not always the dominant emotion. This leaves the album suffused with extraordinary life in many places, prone to more varied instrumentation and dropping the existentialist jam-band trappings of former Magnolia releases for a set replete with saxophones and even some upbeat tempos. Molina’s dark outlook may not have changed, but in this case death has yielded music that feels entirely full of life.