Death has a way of flattening out a life into a simple narrative that can be approximated by a few lines of obituary newsprint. This is especially true for the sort of death that is the result of life-long addiction and tendencies toward self-destruction. In the case of Jason Molina, a quintessentially midwestern artist who died in 2013 of complications due to alcoholism, the teleological power of death is such that it is easy to hear his entire catalogue as a sort of suicide note. There is, for example, a tidy simplicity to understanding the apocalyptic seven minutes of “Farewell Transmission,” arguably his most important sonic document, as a prophetic and self-fulfilling Book of Revelations.
However, like most of Molina’s work with Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., “Farewell Transmission” doesn’t prophesize a ghost-filled world at the brink of demise so much as it builds that world as a fictional landscape, one filled with endless deserts and a predatory midnight that we all must actually live in. Set in the moments wherein “the big star is falling,” the song is not panicked at the prospect of the end of things so much as it grimly satisfied by its final arrival and the fact that we made it this far. Even as the end arrives, the song’s images of impending doom are undercut by a repeated exhortation for all us to “come on, let’s try.” The song’s most obvious prediction of death is immediately tempered: “I will be gone / but not forever.”
The song’s contradictions serve as a study of the crucial but often impossible-to-discern difference between existence and survival. This blurred line runs throughout Molina’s catalogue: defiance and persistence become resignation only to become defiance and persistence again later on. Again and again he predicts that he will never escape his misery, while promising to hang around as long as he possibly can.
It is to Glen Hansard’s credit, then, that It was Triumph We Once Proposed does not give in to the temptation to hear such songs as evidence of Molina’s inevitable death. If It was Triumph is neither the first nor the most comprehensive Jason Molina tribute album, it is the most personal. Rising out of a series of jam sessions intended to help Hansard grieve his friend and tour mate, the EP of five covers works diligently to preserve the sadness that pervaded Molina’s work while also showcasing the strength and resilience that prevented that sadness from swallowing the music whole. Hansard does this, ironically, by converting these five songs into Glen Hansard songs, recording them as heavy but clean folk anthems of loss that somehow manage to glisten anyway. Hansard re-shapes “Farewell Transmission” into a coherent, almost cinematic narrative of unlikely triumph by creating soft-to-loud crescendos that emphasize all of the trying and surviving in the face of the long and inevitable dark. The four other covers here all function well on their own and provide gateways to Molina’s work. The opener, “Being in Love” is particularly strong, adding a welcome swagger and oomph to the song’s repeated claims that “we are proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn.” By articulating the sentiment so forcefully, Hansard gets the line to simultaneously sum up and illuminate his friend’s work.
It is only in comparison with the original material that It was Triumph suffers. Some of this, of course, can be dismissed as the danger of covering good songs. It is easier to recognize the genius of a cover artist who hears an amazing song hiding inside something the rest of us have dismissed than it is to give credit to a cover artist doing his or her best with something that we already knew was good. It is true that It was Triumph doesn’t need to be better than the original material in order to be worthwhile. However, while it is a quality EP that is absolutely worth its weight in a coffee shop playlist, the particular ways in which it differs from the original material are telling. It was Triumph is a loving tribute to an artist haunted by the contradictory impulses of self-destruction and self-preservation; as such, even as it rebels against the impulse to let Molina’s work be constrained by the narrative of the doomed addict, it is still governed by the tyranny of the present, one that can’t un-see Molina’s life and work in service of a very particular counter-narrative, that of the beleaguered survivor.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. Where the original recordings of these five songs are utterly haunted, Hansard’s tribute merely, if impressively, provides evidence of that haunting. The result is like a high-resolution image of a truly interesting apparition, something seen too clearly to be upsetting or inspiring. To be moved by this album – and occasionally, it is moving – is to be moved by Hansard’s genuine affection and reverence for Molina and his work. It was Triumph is a terrific document of Hansard’s efforts to commune with his lost friend. However, one must return to the original recordings in order to be in the presence of what makes Molina’s work worthy of such a séance in the first place.
Preview, buy, and download It Was Triumph We Once Proposed… Songs of Jason Molina at iTunes and Amazon. Or get a primer on the music of Jason Molina with his best-known band, Songs: Ohia, at iTunes and Amazon.