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Feature:

Tell Me to Remember

‘Travels in Constants’ by Songs: Ohia

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words by maria sledmere

In Don DeLillo’s 2001 novel, The Body Artist, a grieving widow drifts around an empty house on the coast. Within the ceaseless void of her lonely days, she finds solace in watching a live video-stream of a road in Kotka, Finland. She is particularly drawn to the ‘dead times’: the hours where the road is utterly empty and somehow that emptiness feels more real; another world framed in transmission, a cleave in time through which she might slip each day to thrive in the moment’s unfolding. Perhaps there is a primal, survivalist’s urge within us to seek out these cleaves in time—places of escape that compel us for their sense of being-in-duration, their presentation of elsewhere circumstance. As I write this, the snow falls heavily on Glasgow, lays down eons of whiteness in generous flurries. Captioning a photograph of their newly-iced street, a friend writes, ‘did it even snow if you didn’t Instagram it?’ I find myself lost in delirious chains of pretty images. To actually venture onto the treacherous streets is to find oneself sliding back on the silver glaze, as if the world were inclined to painful rewind. Day to day, January accumulates its usual blues. As if they were miracles meant to ameliorate the situation, a couple of songs arrive in my inbox, like something from another time.

These songs in fact are from another time. When Jason Molina passed away in 2013, he left behind not only an extensive catalogue of records under his Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. aliases, but also some unreleased gems that are only now being shown to the world. Two of these songs were recorded as a Songs: Ohia EP for Temporary Residence’s distance-themed subscription series, Travels in Constants. The untitled EP comprises ‘Travels in Constants’ and ‘Howler’, two lengthy tracks laid down onto a 4-track cassette, now sensitively remastered and reissued for vinyl and digital by Phantom Limb.

The preserved rawness of the original recording presents us with a poignant immediacy, a sudden evocation of a time out of sync with our smoothly digital age. Recorded sometime in 2001 (incidentally, the same year as DeLillo’s novel), between the release of Ghost Tropic and its earthy, enigmatic follow-up, Didn’t It Rain, the Travels in Constants EP distils Molina’s obsession with the elemental and imagistic, with sorrow’s unspeakable density, with the faintly mythological mixed with the concrete lore of Chicago. Amidst ambient crackle, the sounds of a Chicago night—all dull rush of sirens and traffic—seep in as liquid counterpoint to the prickly, elliptical pull of Molina’s lyrics. This is an EP hinged in the liminal time between one millennium and the next, effecting a temporal dissolve that speaks to a deep existential uncertainty.

Crackle, as Mark Fisher argues in his book on memory, music and depression, Ghosts of My Life, is the ‘principal sonic signature of hauntology’: it recalls its medium, the analogue recording device; the scratch of surface noise that betrays ‘a time that is out of joint’; that won’t allow the usual linear ‘order of listening’. Suffused in the white noise that seeps underneath Molina’s compositions, you find yourself drawn backwards, caught in this eerie sense of complete elsewhere that is both temporal and spatial. While ‘Travels in Constants’ is a little under 18 minutes and ‘Howler’ just over 13, the art of these songs is their ability to draw you from normal time, disintegrating all conscious awareness in their strangely alluring lyric landscapes, their odd and hypnotic tempos. It’s quite the privilege to slip into these songs, which evoke passages from the life of someone who sadly is no longer with us. Nothing about this release feels gratuitous; there’s a simple sense of presenting fans and new listeners with fragile shards of back-catalogue magic, an insight into Molina’s alchemic ability to stem pain with precise, quietly ravelling words and chords.

There’s an aspect of salvage not just to the fact of releasing this work, but to the work itself. When staring into the total, nonsensical abyss of depression, what redeeming details might we glean from the darkness? Molina recorded this EP live in his living room, the way most of us would sit with a cup of tea and silently think. His words, therefore, have something of that contemplative, reflective quality: these are meandering tracks, tracks without climax or moral fulfilment. Closely intimate, it feels almost voyeuristic to listen to them. Their cryptic images hover awhile in the mind, then curl away, dissipate like smoke or steam. On ‘Travels in Constants’, the variating tones of Molina’s guitar feel like the turning of weather, a rise and fall of pressurised emotion, the shifting colours on a mood-ring. Sometimes waltz-like and slow, other times playful—the pensive workings of restless fingers—then again warm and majestic. Throughout, Molina’s voice is quietly sorcerous, weaving its willowy incantations. I take a piece of paper and write down what I hear, which seems a natural reaction to the music—an attempt to cling to these wispy lyrics before distance consumes them. What results is a series of haiku-like fragments; these dark and stunning romantic images, shrouded in cryptic mysticism. Here are but a few:

light of the caravan and thunder
across the vast plain
loom like sickles
above them their wings

the moon looms above
like a sickle

as the hardest day quietens
chalk on the wet wood
round the shadow of alphabets
around the globe

Much of the song runs an internal dialogue of sorts, the mind quietly sorting its rime of thought, peeling off certain crystals of truth to place in the light. There’s also a sense of decomposition: the movements recoiling in shadowy, thunderous strums, Molina’s voice oscillating between strained, melismatic expression and the clipped withdrawal of a single syllable. With the white noise sparkling, with every verse drawing onward but somehow also towards the past, I picture the eye of the cassette tape, its persistent turning: “briars coiled / around his star.”

In a sense, these are bleak tracks, but by no means totally affectless. The ache of Molina’s vowels, reaching towards a chord resolved, a quiet fall, convey their potential catharsis—an unlocking of hurt never fully explained. The tracks are a canvas of abstractions, each gothic symbol carefully placed like a clue. ‘Howler’ is constructed around a syncopated drum-machine click that recalls a sort of haunted carousel, while tentative, sliding guitar riffs streak light and ocherous tones around the ghostly core. ‘Howler’ feels skeletal, its arrangements making tendrils of emotion tangle in unsettling combination, slipping into crunchier, serrated riffs and beats. A howler means a glaring mistake, as much as a shrieking expression of suffering.

A sense of terrible error, hinging on the absurd. The lyrics are sparser, recalling a Jeff Mangum-esque liturgical style, but whose melodic subtlety, whose nuance of delivery, is entirely Molina’s. That warble of broken, haunted, soul-soaked folk. At one point, his voice breaks into a cry that is somewhere between a baby’s yawn or an animal’s stifled howl. He sings of a “horizon in my blood” and there’s a sense that the whole song pursues this line of sweet, inhuman pain, its promise of infinite limit.

For this is an oxymoronic EP, down to the title Travels in Constants, with its suggestion of both movement and endurance. Can something in flux remain steadfast and still? The recursive, looping clicks of ‘Howler’ are insistently machinic; but around that analogue temporality, Molina’s voice and guitar feel mollifying, alive—a figuring out of self and sense within hard and absented time and space. I think of blackbirds settling, one by one on power-lines; chattering, then gliding away again, never revealing their secrets. These are tunes recorded in the dark, honeycomb heart of Chicago, within a single living room, but their lyric focus projects towards pastoral landscapes that glitch on the brink of reverie. The striving for permanence recedes into “failings” and “corrections”; we are acutely aware of these songs as records of process, spiralling passages of contingent scenery, as much as finished works in themselves.

If there’s one thing we can’t escape, it’s the elemental pulse of time: its manifestation on tides and shorelines, the twisting evolutions of speech, the wax and wane of the moon, swirl and lash of weather, the surge and ebb of human mood. Listening back to these previously unreleased songs, Molina’s spectral presence retains virtual possibility as much as memorialisation: a gesture towards futurity that leaves in its wistful, spindly lines a certain glistering posterity. Towards the end of ‘Travels in Constants’, his rising voice insists: “you write the word for this / you write the word for this / with your eyes closed”. We withdraw, we submit to something spectral, automatic, unseen. I can’t help but think of the closing lines from Sylvia Plath’s chiaroscuro lament, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’: ‘And the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence’. In every concatenation of image, Molina seems oriented towards something to-come: looking to objects and transitional phenomena for aesthetic and spiritual guidance, closing his eyes at the domestic altar. What happens inside each play is the opening of time, a fall into solitary fissures of silence. A sickle, after all, is a cutting device. Whether we listen to Travels in Constants as a fresh piece of work, or retroactive elegia, what bleeds from these musical wounds is a rare and mercurial sluice of pain, its brittleness redeemed at last by beauty.

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‘Travel In Constants’ is reissued by Temporary Residence in February

You can pre-order it here

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