We’re so lucky to hear nine new-to-us songs by the late songsmith Jason Molina. The singer/songwriter, who released his most well-known albums under the alias Songs: Ohia (his indie folk outfit) and then later with his band Magnolia Electric Co. (who were more comfortably classified as country-rock), died way too young at 39 in March of 2013. He struggled with depression and alcoholism for years, the latter of which eventually led to organ failure. His story is a tragic but familiar one: Like Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, Molina was a genius who left us too soon.
Thankfully though, like Smith, Cobain and Winehouse, Molina released near-perfect music in the short time he was here. Those aforementioned nine never-before-heard songs will arrive in the form of a new posthumous solo album, Eight Gates, on Friday, Aug. 7 via the storied indie/folk label Secretly Canadian. The label is releasing Eight Gates under Molina’s name (as opposed to one of the other monikers he used while he was alive), and its arrival was preceded by two singles: “The Mission’s End” and “Shadow Answers the Wall.” Recorded in the late 2000s when the Ohio-born Molina was living in London, Eight Gates is a lo-fi unfinished effort (probably because it was, in fact, never fully finished). It doesn’t feel like enough to constitute an album. But considering that our desire for new Molina music will never actually be satiated, it’s appropriate that Eight Gates leaves us wanting more. It’s an album in flux.
One quality that differentiates Molina from those other lost names, though, is that he was never really famous. He played small shows and roughed it for most of his career. In death, however, his songs have taken on a mystical quality—In 2014, a host of artists like My Morning Jacket and Sarah Jaffe shared fresh takes on his songs for a covers album called Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina. Since then, even more artists have come forward as Molina disciples: Kevin Morby and Waxahatchee covered two Songs: Ohia classics for a split single in 2018, “Just Be Simple” is a staple in The Avett Brothers’ live show and Amanda Shires covered that same song in our studio a couple years back. Hopefully Eight Gates will lead even more Americana-minded musicians down the long trail of breadcrumbs Molina left behind.
Eight Gates is a bit ramshackle, but it’s still a gift to hear previously unheard Jason Molina music, and it feels right that the record is being released under his own name. The nine songs are replete with muffled studio banter (a calling card in Molina’s discography) and comments from the peanut gallery, giving us a nice new peak into what he was like at work: “Alright, everybody shut up, this is my record,” Molina casually chimes in on final track “The Crossroad + The Emptiness.” You can tell he’s in charge.
Because we already know how Molina’s story ends, listening to Eight Gates can feel a little eerie. “The perfect take is just as long as the person singing is still alive,” Molina quips at the start of the very raw “She Says,” eliciting quiet laughter from others in the room. It would’ve been a silly moment on the record had it been released in 2010, but it feels much more serious in hindsight. Eight Gates also contains a lot of heartache. “The Mission’s End,” a softly strummed acoustic tune a la “Soul,” doesn’t even sound like a fully fleshed-out metaphor for death, but there’s still the sad, ominous mention of its title, which can only mean a life coming to its close.
Droning noise overpowers the words “Whisper away the howling universe” on “Whisper Away,” leaving us with a sore and quiet space. “Shadow Answers the Wall” is spookier still, as Molina’s voice quivers with each blackened flick of the bass. Inspired by American “tall-tales” like John Henry and Paul Bunyan, Molina also sings a bewitching mountain song (“Fire on the Rail”) and a dark folktale of his own (“Thistle Blue”) on Eight Gates. Each of these songs sound a little too abstract to point to real-life events, but their true meanings are clear if you listen to the sound of Molina’s tired voice. As with so many of his best songs, Eight Gates is populated by sleepy slide guitar, plainspoken language and a brooding energy that only Molina could pull off.
During Molina’s time abroad, his mind and body were both restless. “He’d pick up on arcane trivia about London’s rich history, and if the historical factoids weren’t available—or weren’t quite to his liking—Molina was quite comfortable conjuring his own history,” reads a statement in the Eight Gates liner notes. In fact, Eight Gates was said to have been written while Molina was stationed at home on doctor’s orders after receiving a gnarly spider bite. Yet, there’s no record of a single prescription, doctor visit or any insect bite at all. The liner notes also mention Molina’s fascination with a pandemonium of parrots who visited his front yard in London—which he later discovered was a creation of his own imagination (He does still bring them to life in the tropical bird noises that bookend Eight Gates). These tidbits leave us wondering how much of Molina’s truth was conjured—or did he just know something the rest of us never will?
That’s all to say we’ll never know how much of Eight Gates was inspired by real life and how much was consumed by fairytales and hallucinations, but the music itself is tangible. Eight Gates floats in on a cloud, but it’s rooted in talent and charisma. So no matter how fanciful its stories or lonesome its songs or scattered its tracklist, we must be thankful for Eight Gates. It now joins the ranks among the other magnificent Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. works—they’re all that remain.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.