Magnolia Electric Co.’s latest album will be rightly viewed as an entirely morose affair. Of course, lead singer/songwriter Jason Molina has been bringing yearly tidings of gloom and doom since the bygone days of Songs: Ohia, but his latest album, Josephine, is inextricably linked to despair. Though Molina has warned listeners against this, Josephine will likely be seen as a tribute album to touring Magnolia Electric Co. bassist, Evan Farrell, who died in an apartment fire in late 2007. In actuality, Josephine is somewhat of a tribute to Farrell, although not thematically. Molina has stated that his intentions with Josephine were to record the album exactly how he and Farrell had imagined it.
If Molina succeeded, then evidently he and Farrell had imagined Josephine as a pristinely produced country affair. Even having Steve Albini produce it couldn’t dirty up the proceedings. It wouldn’t even be an overstatement to call in that unfortunate adjective that most respectable musicians avoid like the plague to describe this album: “glossy.” The piano that introduces Josephine is startling in that it sounds like the intro to a Rihanna power ballad. That beginning combined with the unabashedly cheesy sax solo that appears midway through the song (“O Grace”) drag down what would otherwise be an album highlight filled with lovely images of solitude (“It’s a long way between horizons, and it gets further every day”).
Generally, the sleekness of the album is not the main detrimental issue that keeps Josephine from being a truly enjoyable listen, although it could be reasonably argued that all of the polished instrumentation undercut the main themes of loneliness and longing. Additionally, we’ve all known for a long time that lyrically, Jason Molina is far from a slouch, and some of his more affecting, vivid lyrics appear on Josephine (“As long as there are sundowns, there will always be a West,“ from “Song For Willie”). Yet the songs that back up those lyrics are almost uniformly weak. Molina’s melodic methods of choice on Josephine alternate between meandering around hoping a good tune will appear (“Josephine“), stumbling across a good one and damn near beating it into the ground (“Rock of Ages”), or in the case of “The Handing Down,” barely attempting a melody at all.
What’s more, Josephine at its most breakneck pace barely reaches mid-tempo, making it a stultifying drag at 46 minutes. With the exception of the “Little Sad Eyes,” a highlight by default, perked up by some sinister B-3 organ, the second half of Josephine congeals into one tedious alt-country drone. At the very least, the monotonousness of Josephine does effectively mirror the thorough and absolute languor of traveling long distances alone. So while Molina does deserve credit for successfully creating a potent musical parallel for the isolation and melancholy that inform his lyrics, that dreariness does have its effect on the listener’s attention.
While Farrell‘s death does clearly have a profound affect on the album‘s mood, which will naturally engender sympathy (and, admittedly, a bit of morbid fascination) in the listener, it is not enough to keep the audience captive. And, of course, that really shouldn’t affect anyone’s opinion of the album (though we can reasonably guess that it will). Given the inherent thematic sadness, Josephine’s detriments are easily forgivable, but it’s doubtful that most listeners feel the need to give it more than one listen.