On Shuffle: Songs:Ohia – Ring the Bell

Songs stumbled upon, songs remembered, songs because why the hell not?

“All of this is an attempt to put a serious price on lyrics that are honest not witty, shy but not weak, weary if they are and sad without apology, depression without a fight and depression with a fight.” – Jason Molina

It would be reductive to classify Jason Molina’s rich back catalogue as nothing but a collection of songs about sadness. But there’s no denying that among his many gifts lied an uncanny knack for capturing the mundane horrors of depression. Recently whilst suffering with it I’ve found myself recoiling from music featuring easily understood lyrics, preferring to wrap myself in cacophonous guitar noise or elegiac ambient drift. They comfort like old blankets. But Molina’s words still shine like beacons in the black.

“Everyone tells you not to quit/I can’t even see it to fight it/if it looks like I’m not trying…I don’t care what it looks like.”

Didn’t it Rain is a record seeped in unnamed, unshakable sadness. From the solipsistic opening title track through no less than 4 tracks with the word blue, that saddest of all colours, in their title, it’s an album that sounds desperately lonesome from first note to last. Night is constantly evoked – the whole record seems to take place under the cover of darkness, “in the Midwest’s witching hour.” To me it plays out like a nocturnal roadtrip, under the swaying wires, past riverbanks, across the “bridge out of Hammond”, with the blue moon above being be pounded by wiper blades in the windscreen in Steve Albini’s Blues. It’s a lonely trip with no apparent destination in mind.

“Help does not just walk up to you/I could have told you that/I’m not an idiot.” 

At turns belligerent and desperate, Ring the Bell is trudges on with a three note bowed double bass refrain driving it forward, like the shambling gait of one who’s bones are starting to feel heavier than they’re worth. It switches between cryptic threatening imagery of ever present serpents and hounds (he might not be trite enough to colour the dogs black but it’s not a huge jump to make) and responses to some real or imagined questioning of his will to fight his demons. One of the most frustrating things of suffering from mental health woes is that the moments when it looks like you’ve given up are the ones you’re most likely to be fighting tooth and nail. And neither advice nor admonishments, however well intentioned, are much use in that battle. People can’t see your internal struggle, seeing instead only the tired lump of flesh before them, so they tell you to try harder. As if you’re not trying your hardest already. Why wouldn’t you be? “Why wouldn’t I be trying to figure it out? Why wouldn’t I be trying? Why wouldn’t I try?”

“If there’s a way out it will be step by step through the black.”

Of course it will. Confucius said, “to move a mountain you begin by moving the smallest rocks.” But you don’t see the rocks when you’re right down there in it. You see nothing but the mountain, you feel it’s sublime imposition upon you. It shakes you to your core, makes roots of your limbs. And the more you stare at it the more everything starts to look like a mountain; the more everything takes on a sense of unassailable awe.

Molina kept coming back to this theme of just keeping on, one foot in front of the other, throughout his work. Life as a battle to just keep on travelling. Later, on his most famous composition Farewell Transmission he sings, “The real truth about it is there ain’t no end to the desert I’ll cross/I’ve really known it all along.” There’s no end in sight, no destination to speak of. The only friend you have is a horizon that deigns not to get any closer to you. At the end of Didn’t it Rain, during closing number Blue Factory Flame, he sings directly to someone suffering under a cloud of, “endless, endless, endless, endless depression,” assuring them, “you are not helpless.” Ring the Bell’s advice is more practical.

“If there’s a way out it will be step by step through the black.”

But what if there’s no end to the black? And what if you’ve really known it all along? There isn’t really any way out. But you have to keep going. Step by step by step. Movement for it’s own sake: a journey without any plans for arrival. A hunt with no kill. Keeping on keeping on, as it were. Because what else is there?

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