2000: Songs: Ohia - Ghost Tropic

I don't know who it was or how it happened, but someone, some time ago, broke Jason Molina's heart. Listen to any of his records released under the now-retired Songs: Ohia moniker, and this fact becomes painfully and unmistakably clear. Molina makes no bones about the crushing sense of loss and longing that informs his songs; rather, he embraces it as his musical raison d'etre. With it, he builds songs up and breaks them down; he puts them together and, on Ghost Tropic, he blows them all apart.

Released in late 2000, it's difficult not to view the sparse, haunting Ghost Tropic as the centerpiece of a musical trilogy of sorts, beginning with the tough, resonant The Lioness (also released in 2000) and concluding with 2002's brilliant, gospel-informed Didn't It Rain. Easily the best three records of Molina's career thus far, taken together they form a heartbreaking anthology of love and loss like no other. Plenty musicians of our day have pontificated on the nature of that most pervasive and familiar of human quandaries, but few have done so with as much consistent gumption as Molina. And it is Ghost Tropic that holds the dubious distinction of being the bleakest of the bleak: while the cuts and bruises of Lioness were still fresh, raw -- painful but not yet insidious -- and the songs on Didn't It Rain carry a certain calm acceptance about them, Ghost Tropic finds Molina smack in the midst of a goddamn monster of a darkness.

The music on Ghost Tropic is scant, vaporous, barely there. I called it "sparse" above; really, that doesn't come close. Impatient listeners might initially write the album off as painfully slow, wearisome even -- and it is, at points. More often, though, its exactness only enhances the delicate, intensely crafted nature of the songs emerging from the belly of this beast. There is a peculiar sort of deconstruction at work here that informs the entirety of the record. "Lightning Risked It All" opens the album with a literal thud, a muted guitar providing a deliberate, stifled rhythm while a second guitar rings out some awkward harmonics, which someone -- Molina or guest Alasdair Roberts -- manipulates in real time by de- and re-tuning the instrument's strings. "It's not a generous world," Molina posits. "It is a separate world." The net effect is one of spooky isolation. It is no stretch to call Ghost Tropic Molina's most experimental recording, and in hindsight, it is an enlightening listen. While his newer work under the Magnolia Electric Co. moniker is far and large first-rate, that band's straightforward rock 'n' roll groove leaves little room for the sort of haunted atmospherics heard here.

Not only are these songs pared down musically, but lyrically, this is Molina's most terse offering to date. "I once had all the words/ I forgot all the words," he laments on the brutal, shuffling "The Body Burns Away." An uncharacteristically Latin-influenced rhythm guides the song through its chilling climax, in which Molina vigorously repeats the song's nihilistic title in an apparent attempt to convince himself of the futility of love and, well, everything else. The body burns away, and all that is left is the specter of loss; there is nothing concrete, no words at all. Later, on the calm, funereal "No Limit On The Words," it is simply "I will say nothing." If it isn't clear yet, I shall now enlighten you: this, pals, ain't music for the faint of spirit. Dark is one thing, but this is bitter and unyielding. It is music perhaps best understood in the context of a particularly dark and vicious winter or the dry, punishing heat of some harsh, unwelcoming desert.

All this is not to say that Ghost Tropic is an unpleasant listen. Its songs are inventive and actually very pretty, and beneath the hardened exterior of each slow-burner lies a subtle but definite tinge of hope and redemption. That theme would eventually be realized more tangibly on the aforementioned Didn't It Rain, with its buoyant opening line, "No matter how dark the storm gets overhead/ They say someone's watching from the calm at the edge." Here, it exists in amoebic form: in the resolutely indecipherable imagery of "Not Just A Ghost's Heart," with its equation of love to oceanic navigation ("Her curve's the whole coast"), and in the staid, desperate plea of "Work it out with me" in the marathon closer "Incantation."

But those moments of apparent optimism are few and far between on a record like Ghost Tropic. Even if you haven't heard it, you know the type. It is a relatively well-worn concept: the somber, self-loathing, "love-can-and-probably-will-kill-you" masterpiece. Neil Young's On The Beach comes to mind, as does Leonard Cohen's Songs Of Love And Hate (although those records possess an alleviatory dry humor largely missing from Ghost Tropic). Upon listening to any of these albums, some might wonder: why the need for such ostensibly aimless misery for the sake of music, for the sake of Art? Is this not just pain for pain's sake? Are Jason Molina and, by extension, all those who seek out and enjoy the bleakness of a record like Ghost Tropic nothing more than a herd of selfish, grief-seeking masochists? Well, maybe. But really, probably not. Put bluntly, and with an unavoidable degree of cliché, Molina expresses how we all feel from time to time. Forget smilin' on your brother and loving one another right now: this is music by, for, and about you and me. It is incredibly, unapologetically human, for better or for worse.

1. Lightning Risked It All
2. The Body Burned Away
3. No Limits on the Words
4. Ghost Tropic
5. Ocean's Nerves
6. Not Just a Ghost's Heart
7. Ghost Tropic
8. Incantation

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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