Didn't it Rain is a standard of American Gospel music folklore, originating (probably) in the 19th century as a field song and originally copyrighted as an art song in 1919 by Henry Thacker Burleigh. Mahalia Jackson sings what is probably the best-known version of the song. Sister Rosetta Tharpe also performed the tune regularly, including a legendary performance in a 1964 television special in front of a young English crowd in Manchester. Hugh Laurie also covered the song recently on his Joe Henry-produced album of the same name.
The relationship between this song and Jason Molina's song and album under the Songs: Ohia recording name, 2002's Didn't it Rain, is not perfectly clear. While the album's appreciation and debt to American gospels and spirituals is apparent, Molina's work still seems unrelated in all but in name. It's an interesting parallel in what is already a very complicated album. The rest of this writeup will be focusing on the album.
Didn't it Rain is the apex of depression rock. Critics have famously hailed it as Molina's "first perfect record." Between Molina's pitiful, deeply accented humming tenor, tonally open alternate guitar tunings, sparse, largely improvised arrangements, and songwriting and performances that reflected his rampant chronic depression and chronic alcoholism that plagued and eventually took his life, the album doesn't seem like it's set up to succeed. But it's an album that for its remarkably slow pace is deeply contemplative, and fairly brief, and achieves a level of poetic honesty and aching, lonely beauty that is truly rare.
There are several consistent themes of the album, which flows very easily and seamlessly as a single body of work. Molina's Ohio roots, images of buses, factories, exhaust fumes, windshield wipers, shallow creeks, and homeliness in all the rust of its economic depression and inescapability can be felt throughout. The theme of rain itself is also somewhat consistent. The feelings of alienation and isolation, and of depression itself are both hinted at and directly addressed. The larger or at least separate subject of addiction is also addressed in tandem with the isolation and depression because, as anyone with experience in the subjects know, they compound upon each other. And lastly, the theme of introspection itself, the relationship with the self and the gambit of life.
There is some small dispute concerning this album as to where it fits in the Jason Molina catalog, but that dispute/confusion mostly concerns Molina's next album, The Magnolia Electric Company. Molina has gone on record saying that Didn't it Rain is the last album under the Songs: Ohia moniker, and that's good enough for me. These are the songs:
"If there's a way out it will be step by step through the black"
Ring the Bell is the album's first and perhaps its most explicit address of Molina's addiction. The strings very clearly and ominously ring in quarter tones at the top of every phrase, to the backdrop of a darkly directional cello and a subdued and muted floor tom beat. Here Molina outlines his struggle, his feelings that he's been set at odds with something, somehow, and the knowledge of the absurdity of his situation, him being pitted against his own demons.
"Why wouldn't I be trying
to figure it out?
Why wouldn't I try?"
Ring the Bell seamlessly transitions into Cross the Road, Molina. It seems that the whole album is addressed from Molina to himself in a sense, but this is the only song that is very explicitly addressed as such. The heavy reverb of the electric guitar, the similar cello and tom drum pieces in their deep tones mirrored against the pitchy and melodically carrying mandolin make this a very obvious companion piece to Ring the Bell, and it would be awkward listening to one without the other.
"Set my pulse
to an electric pulse"
Lyrically, Cross the Road is perhaps the most convoluted and metaphorical of any of the album's songs. We're not allowed access to Molina's images at first, but as the song rolls along we're given a better understanding of its place in the album and of its self-reference as it gives us a glimpse of the album's finale, Blue Chicago Moon. As the clangy, rough metal of the guitar slings like a blade carrying us through this persistent, down-tempo piece, its place in the middle of the album finally prepares us and musically explains to us that we have entered a very separate world with this album, and does the best job of "showing" its audience how to listen to the music as it's laid over a disarming lyrical section.
"Blue Chicago moon
Swings like a blade above the midwest's heart
Swings like a blade up above us
Show us how close it can get
Show us how close you can get
Show us how fast we can lose it,
How bad we're outnumbered"
"Set my pulse...
to an electric pulse"
Ring the Bell and Cross the Road are the only songs from Didn't it Rain to appear on The Magnolia Electric Company's live album Trials & Errors, and it is a fantastic and well-recommended performance. But the songs are also very good in context.
"On the bridge out of Hammond"
Steve Albini's Blues seems to be another referential but unrelated title. The prevailing and assumed rumor is that Jason Molina admired and had wished to work with the famed producer (and who the hell wouldn't?). Albini's wife had apparently been a fan of Molina's music from working at a record & CD store in Chicago, and had written a fan letter to Molina at one point. Steve knew of Molina's work distantly through this relationship, though it's not clear that this is what motivated Molina to title the song as such. What is clear is that if Molina didn't have Albini's attention before this record, he did shortly after, because Albini collaborated with Molina to produce The Magnolia Electric Company the year after Didn't it Rain was released.
"See the big city moon"
Musically, after a sparse, two-toned solo guitar introduction, the song is a 2-chord drone. The strings are perfectly rhythmic and percussive, giving us all the images and feel of a late night drive through the rain. These images are vivid and attention-capturing, letting us focus on the specifics of the environment while churning over the bigger picture of Molina's torment.
"Think about what's darkening my life"
It's a well-sequenced track, it rings beautifully, and it is perhaps the best stand-alone song on the album, and the one I'd point to for a most accurate and satisfying first impression of the record. Still, it fits very well within the album and feeds off its tone and its themes, but would stand as the only song on the album that could ever be appropriate as a single, and is least dependent on the music around it.
"See the light of the afterworld
shining on the ruins
It's the light of nowhere else
burning to the west
See its sulphery shine
On the bridge out of Hammond"
If Cross the Road didn't show you the true pace and power of this record, then Blue Factory Flame will take you there for sure. The slowest and longest song on the record, this is a sweet electric painful dirge, with tight and crisp drumming, an irreplacably supportive electric bass, and excellent lead and background vocal performances to support its immense, immense sadness.
"When I die
Put my bones in an empty street
To remind me how it used to be"
Beyond its first small but profound contemplation of death, this song is about American wear and tear. This is the song about eyesorses. About the slow death of the American industrial era, the dead sweat of forgotten brows, and about the sparse, basic and betrayed pride of the Midwest factory towns and lumber towns, the small towns, and all the weariness of home.
"Clearly iron age beasts
You can tell by the rust and the chains
and by the oil that they bleed"
This is at once the albums most dissociated song and its most attached. Aside from the question of mortality, this song is lead by sentiment and by the pain enclosed and inhabited by a place, rather than by internal ailments. But the pain and the dying history of the surrounding home of the place is internalized and carried in a heartbreaking way.
"Ghostly steel and iron ore
Ships coming home"
Flame is also the only Didn't it Rain song that persistently and successfully uses a chorus in its structure. But, especially with the harmonies of it, and with the weight of the chords, Molina sure as hell makes it count. This is maybe the most ringing and most hauntingly real song of the album.
"Every mile for ten thousand miles
And every year for a thousand years
Every night for a thousand more
I hear them calling
I hear them call
They never say to come home
Never say to come home
Where I am...
Paralyzed by the emptiness"
The album's lyrical climax comes very mysteriously and very unexpectedly at its shortest song, Two Blue Lights. It starts simply enough, poetic and beautiful, but ultimately reminiscent of Albini's Blues and Factory Flame. Then out of nowhere,
"There's a dead archer in the tower
You can't hear it but you can tell
When the bells ring twelve times in hell
The bells ring twelve times in this town as well"
It's the first image of malevolence in the album. It's the first story of an untold story, and the first idea of decay based on a person or an event, rather than a natural decay that had persisted long before or after the record. This is the only truth of the album that exists because of the record, as opposed to an observation that the record offers. I've spent a very long time meditating on the dead archer and what it could mean, all the answers I've produced are personal and only give internal satisfaction. This song is the biggest question I have for the dead Jason Molina, and the most profoundly beautiful torment that he has left behind for me.
Two Blue Lights leads unforgivingly into Blue Chicago Moon, the inspiring, heartbreakingly hopeful and spiritual finale to this broken masterpiece. Molina only truly made one of these.
"Out of the ruins
Blood grown heavy from his past
His wings stripped by thunder
But those storms keep coming back"
This is the summation of that confusing plight of life. And the re-invigoration of life. Not to rise, not to shine, not to be reborn and to come back with strength and ferocity, but to persist through a dark and inescapable film of sadness and emptiness through which everything seems impossible.
"Singing birds in sickness
Sing the same blues songs
When they fell out of the emptiness
They must have brought along
There's a lot of resistance, a lot of denial, and a lot of shame that comes with addiction and self-abuse. And what's most lonely of all is to feel out of touch with the other people of the world that can relate to all the embarrassment, all the lack of self-worth, all the disappointment and all the anger. We can connect to the world through the mirrors in the long sad eyes of other people, but I never would have known Jason Molina if it weren't for his work. I never have met him, and I never will. I'll never be able to look in his eyes to see myself, but I know myself better because of him and because of his pain and the strength that he's given me by simply using his voice.
"He's gotten so good at hiding it
that even he does not admit it
that glittering flash in his eyes
makes it look like he might be alright"
It is about survival. It's about living in spite, without the impossible question of the gambit of life, it's not about waiting for Godot or asking questions but it's about when you pick your ass up off the curb and walk towards somewhere or something. It's about learning how to feel again, whether or not it's love or emptiness that guides you. It's about the natural human urge to want, and to try, and to be.
"If the blues are you, hunter
Then you will come face to face
With that darkness and desolation
and the endless, endless, endless, endless, endless, endless depression"
"But you are not helpless"
The piano of Blue Chicago Moon, the background vocals, the guitar tones, the long bass tones, the crisp cymbals, the openness and the honesty of it all gets overwhelming. This is Good Morning, Captain. This is Stairway to Heaven. This is hope itself, bleeding.
"You are not helpless"
Jason Molina finally moved out of whatever terribly lonely and unproductive living situation over the course of writing this album. He settled in Chicago, where he would later write in another song "Why put a new address/on the same old loneliness/everybody knows where that is/we build that house of his." Jason did not help himself. He did not ever fully recover or pull himself out of his depression. He made several more records as Magnolia Electric Co. over the next 7 or 8 years until his unstable condition forced him to withdraw from public life altogether in 2010. He had been in and out of different rehabilitation facilities in England, Indianapolis, Indiana, New Orleans, Lousisiana, and Chicago, and retiring to quietly working on a farm in West Virginia raising chickens and fighting himself. He stayed with himself, his disappointment, and his demons until he died in March of 2013 from organ failure related to chronic alcohol abuse.
"You are not helpless"
Jason was one person. One magnificent person who did his best to help and to never slight or offend anyone but himself, and his situation does not mirror mine. It does not mirror yours. He had a sad love in him, and he had a magnificent grip on the English language, and the strangely sad contradictions of the American struggle. He's done more to help me and the lovers of his music than any other stranger I've ever known, and I know he would hold me like a brother if he could. He tried, and he will be so adored and missed by all the fans and friends who gave him the courage to keep fighting for as long as he did in the first place, through all the sickness and all the decay and all the hopelessness.
"I'll help you to try, try to beat it"
"Come on, let's try, try to beat it"
Jennie Bedford quietly sings her way along with the band to lead out the end of this fantastically devastating statement of sad mortality. There can be nothing left after this.
"And live through space's loneliness"
But, Didn't it Rain, children? Didn't it Rain? My god.
"No matter how dark the storm gets overhead
They say someone's watching from the calm at the edge
What about us when we're down here in it
We gotta watch our own backs"
This is how it begins. The snake of trust, the snake of the self and how to deal with the self as a human among humans.
The most strikingly retrograde (not to be confused with atonal), open-chorded, hollow-ringing and haunting solo performance of the record, and the album's most lyrically deep and well-crafted complaint. Didn't it Rain is the strongest, most vicious level of pain you could ever feel.
"They think you got it, they're gonna beat it out of you
Through work, and debt, whatever else that there is
You gotta watch your own back"
There is hope with the pain, always. Hope is always the last thing to die. There is love with the hate, always. The obvious solution to Jason's mortal conflict is expression, whether or not it's enough. Communication. Relation, with the inspired, quiet, listening people that he will never know and that will touch so unchangably. It's not even about legacy, it's not even about being appreciated or remembered. It's about explanation. Illustration. Getting you to look at something familiar from a different point of view - the human condition, the life of the depressed and the alienated.
"Try to see the light of goodness burning down the track"
When Molina decides on the spot of recording with his live, full band to sing another round of the neutral-vowel reprise, it only feels like a natural part of the song. This is genuinely a musician's kind of music, it is daring in how organic and how open-hearted it feels for being so mysterious and uncompromising. This is truly the omega of that tricky, unsatisfying "Alt-Country" label.
"Through the blinding rain, through the swaying wires"
There is always camaraderie, even in pain and loneliness. There is always connection, simply by being that inescapably self-aware human being that we all are. But the conclusion is not always to love, not always to find yourself, not always to turn over.
"If I see you struggle, giving all that you got
See you work all night burning your light
to the last of its dim watts
I'm gonna help you how I can"
It's not enough to care. It's not enough to know, or to see, or to want. It's nearly impossible sometimes to foster that love and to foster that trust and that healthy relationship with the self. It's nearly impossible for someone so self-destructive and so beaten to turn themselves over.
"If you see me struggle all night
and give me a hand cause I'm in need
I'll call you friend, indeed"
There's some sinister nature that can't be denied sometimes. There's some mistrust, some depth of pain that can't be resisted sometimes. The beginning is the ending, is the inevitable conclusion of hope, help, effort, and an ultimate submission to the endless cycle of the pain of the human heart.
"But I'm gonna watch my own back"
The truth is, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you and me or anyone were the last few pieces of light in the universe. I would still be watching my own back.
Didn't it Rain was released March 5, 2002 by Secretly Canadian Records. It was produced by Edan Cohen. All songs were written and demo'd by Jason Molina. 7 tracks, 43.5 minutes. It is a masterpiece.
01. Didn't it Rain
02. Steve Albini's Blues
03. Ring the Bell
04. Cross the Road, Molina
05. Blue Factory Flame
06. Two Blue Lights
07. Blue Chicago Moon