Last time I saw Magnolia Electric Co. frontman and guitarist Jason Molina, with his previous band Songs: Ohia, I remember thinking, “Man, he looks nothing like I expected.” He seemed more like a handsome, confident frat boy than the mournful, intensely sensitive soul from which his songs emerge.
Tuesday night at the Hi-Dive, I had the same thought. Molina—unlike his band members, attired and coiffed in standard Americana berumplement—looked nothing like I expected, in a different way.
This time, a bushy mustache accented Molina’s otherwise clean-shaven face, and he wore form-fitting jeans and a patterned shirt, as one might wear for cocktails with Tom Selleck. Not the look of a man who would sing, “You see, I nailed my guilt to the back of my eyes. So I see it now before the sun.”
That is a typical Magnolia Electric Co. lyric—so bleak that it would seem parodic, if it didn’t feel true and beautiful. Truth and beauty intermingled with camp throughout Magnolia’s 70-minute set, which began with a few errant musical brushstrokes but developed into a superb portrait of a band with extraordinary control of a very particular musical and emotional palette.
Sang Molina in “O! Grace:” “From Chicago to West Virginia, I’ve been as lonesome as the world’s first ghost,” a lyric that pigeonholes the geographic and emotional settings of Magnolia Electric Co.’s songs.
Their geographic world is Rust Belt farms and factories (Molina is from Bloomington, Indiana, the midpoint of the aforementioned poles), in which the sky seems infinite but gravity is a lead overcoat. Magnolia Electric Co. is Americana in the most literal sense, not only in the band’s affection for poetic narratives set to refined country music, but in the impossibility of imagining the songs being developed elsewhere.
The Hi-Dive’s low ceilings made these songs sound stunted, as they must in nearly every venue the band plays. Musically this is not ideal, but to hear Magnolia at an airy venue like Red Rocks would dissipate the emotional impact. Hearing them in a venue where they can’t possibly sound their best is a natural extension of the content of the songs, in which people struggle, ghosts roam and landscape rules.
Amid the well-articulated despair, it sometimes seemed Molina blurred the line between heartache and parody. Looking at his mouth while he sang the lyrics, he clearly seemed to be the guy singing Magnolia Electric Co.’s desperate songs. Between lyrics, between songs, in his darting eyes, it felt like he was painting a picture of a painting—a step removed, aware of the overamplification of dark sentiments.
Presumably Molina is not as relentlessly bleak as the person who sings his songs: if he was, he would no longer be around to sing them. But perhaps Colorado, where authenticity spars with sentimentality, is a good place to wonder how Molina reconciles the songwriter’s sadness with the performer’s persistence.
Certainly Molina appreciated the Denver crowd. During his encore he noted, “We really scored with this place.” His pause was like a wink. “A 12-point buck.”
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Jeremy Simon is a Lafayette freelance writer and regular contributor to Reverb.