Just how many other heartbreaking albums did Molina have hidden in the wings?
The cruelest thing about Love & Work: The Lioness Sessions is seeing those “(outtake)” labels. “(Outtake)” usually denotes some cast-off periphery, c- and d-sides never meant to see the light of day. For Jason Molina, it meant a landmark album hidden in a studio backroom.
Molina once admitted, “I throw away most of what I write,” which is made infuriating by the work shown on Love & Work. Both as Songs: Ohia and The Magnolia Electric Co., Molina was one of the figureheads of the weird, warbly and devastating alt-country sound of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Love & Work comes from the sessions in Glasgow that Molina recorded with members of Arab Strap before the release of his breakout The Lioness in 2000. Both the original and this set (The Lioness plus 11 new tracks) are remarkably similar in starkness to Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness. But Molina’s work shouldn’t be seen as a derivative to Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It’s a companion to another luminary of the era, pushing a nascent sound into perfection.
Rather than the churning fury of 16 Horsepower or the sardonic pop of Ryan Adams, Molina used the trappings of something much older in his revamped version of Americana. And with instrumentation this simple, it wasn’t hard to imagine much of Love and Work arising from some forgotten session work from the ’50s. There’s little more than Molina, his guitar, brushed drums, bass growls and occasional humming organs coming in from the rafters. Lyrically, he completely avoided Oldham’s penchant for macabre mirth. Molina’s plainspoken details matched by outbursts of wrenching metaphors for burned out love made the lyrics timeless. And with a background this bare, you’re forced to focus in on Molina’s crushing tales of dying love.
Love & Work is peppered with the least sexy songs about lust ever made. Though Molina does delve into the mystic forces of physical attraction, he focuses on the desperation and addiction that can follow. “The world is so pale next to you,” he sings with reverence, but he also describes his love with: “eyes are viper black.” He’s being hypnotized by beauty or sex and submitting to it even as he feels everything else fade away. “I’ve been thrashed by the hope of your body,” he later sings, the brief coital release not enough to save either of them. It’s made worse by the innocence in his voice. Molina going from a schoolboy tenor to a throat-shredding howl is as compelling as it is hard on the heart.
Even in this half-produced form, Molina was brilliant pushing the listener deep into the sound. During its quietest moments, Love and Work demands to be flipped all the way to 11, and even then Molina’s voice sounds barely there, the static and fuzz filling up the space competing for the front. Then he’ll shout or ascend to that quavering breaking point and burst through.
These lost songs would have been another landmark in alt-country, on par with I See a Darkness, Molina’s own work and Smog. The songs denoted by “(Lissy’s Sessions)” are infinitely more lo-fi, the drums thwapping like trash can lids and organ notes growling from some lost dungeon synth tape. And, still, Molina’s coo comes through. Hearing him mewl, “I am your man/ I am your man” on “Already Through” is shattering, for the purity and total lack of protection. It sounds like a late open mic night, the crowd completely suspended in Molina’s cracked, gorgeous world.
There is a feeling that Molina might have scrapped these songs for their skeletal feel. “It Gets Harder Over Time” barely clocks in at two minutes and goes nearly as soon as it reaches its climax. Its thrashing chorus could have been the foundation for a “Farewell Transmission”-style epic, but we’re left wondering if Molina just couldn’t find a home for it. Molina passed away in 2013, dead from alcohol abuse. He was just 39. Between his untimely passing and his constant pruning of songs, Love & Work asks just how many other heartbreaking albums Molina had hidden in the wings. And that question, just like the music, is as painful as it is beautiful.