What Jason Molina and his fellow electric suppliers have given us on Josephine is timeless. It's at times fragile, at times bolstering, at times bittersweet, at times even triumphant, but it's timeless all the same. The record aches with the loss of bass player Evan Farrell, but it also finds strength to move on. Whether we want to understand Josephine as a tribute is not necessarily what's most important. The music and arrangements themselves are powerful and beautiful and exquisitely coherent, whether we know the story behind the record or not. With Josephine, Magnolia Electric Co. may just be at its finest.
From the opening chug of “O! Grace,” complete with Clarence Clemons-esque saxophone and an uplifting sing-along chorus, Molina and company don’t stop shining. Though Molina has oft been compared to Neil Young, this record sits more firmly around the campfire with Gram Parsons and the rest of the Flying Burrito Bros. It’s a record wedged firmly in the '70s, but with much more of a country lean.
“Whip-Poor-Will,” though left to ferment from the sessions for the boxed set from a few years ago, might just be the most affecting track on the record. It's a perfect mix of acoustic guitar, a bit of bottlenecking, and Molina’s plaintive and dogged voice. Take a lyric with perfect meter like “Still waiting/ For you to sing that song again/ The one you were singing at the very fall of man/ It ain’t 'Hallelujah' but it might as well have been” and marry it to perfect slide guitar and acoustic strumming, and you’ve got a soaring breaking heart. Little darlin’, amen.
Magnolia Electric Co. may have a pretty consistent gloom to their breadbasket rock sound, but they rarely do the same thing twice. Josephine is no exception, as the band gets a little more conceptual on this 14-track song cycle. And while it's certainly a loose cycle and not a clear story, front man Jason Molina spends the album exploring ideas of dislocation, which isn't too surprising coming from a guy who has "moved in the last dozen years or so at least 30-some times." But more than its song cycle structure and solitary themes, Josephine most notably marks the culmination of work that Molina began with the band's late bassist, Even Farrell, who died tragically in an apartment fire in Oakland. While Molina claims the new album isn't a tribute exactly, the work he did with Farrell, and perhaps Farrell's absence on the record itself, gives the album a more minimalist sound than previous Magnolia records, as Molina and company try and move away from all those Crazy Horse comparisons.