Secretly Canadian returns with yet another previously unreleased collection of songs from the late, beloved singer-songwriter Jason Molina. The Bloomington, Indiana-based independent label has undoubtedly raised more and more awareness for Molina (and his projects Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.) with each passing anniversary reissue and uncovered musical trove.
Molina passed away in 2013 due to complications from alcoholism, but these nine songs were recorded in London four years prior — the last solo songs he recorded before his untimely, tragic passing. Molina was a prolific songwriter, recognized for his dark, moody folk (albums like The Lioness and Didn’t It Rain) and alt-country twang (the breakthrough Magnolia Electric Co.). But in her story for No Depression’s Spring 2019 “Standards & Stanzas” issue, writer and Molina biographer Erin Osmon emphasized a lesser known element of his personality. She writes, “What’s often lost among the somber and spectral nature of Molina’s work is that in life he was an unrelenting joker, self-mythologizer, and general weirdo who spoke in cartoonish voices and broke out into spontaneous song and dance.”
Eight Gates is steeped in that kind of mythology — both of city and self. The title itself is a twist on the number of double-archway entrances within the London Wall, granting entrance to the City of London. The Roman empire built the London Wall between 190 and 220 C.E., but due to the constant construction, disintegration, and expansion, the precise number of land and water-based gates was always in flux. It’s said, however, that traditionally, there were seven gates to the city. When Molina moved from his native Midwest to London in either 2006 or 2007, he created his own lore while exploring the city by foot; for the sake of the story, he added another gate just for himself.
Listeners get to peer through Molina’s secret passageway via Eight Gates into the world of the songwriter’s most troubling times and muddled perceptions. The songs are mostly rough cuts, unfinished thought-pieces only about two-and-a-half minutes in length. Yet, despite the brevity and vague, fragmented lyrics, Molina still manages to communicate the visceral ache for which he’s known. His raw tenor is downright cherubic on “The Mission’s End,” cooing in the outro, “We’re all equal along this path.” A few songs, however, sound more fully formed. “Whisper Away,” “Be Told The Truth,” and “Thistle Blue” are the only tracks that near four minutes (still incredibly short compared to some of Molina’s previous epics like “Farewell Transmission” or “The Big Game Is Every Night”), complete with cello and keys whirring with Molina’s clean, distant electric guitar.
Another mythological element of Eight Gates comes in the form of bird calls. London legend has it that Jimi Hendrix kept a pair of bright green parakeets as pets during the ’60s, eventually let them loose, and their offspring can still be spotted and heard around the city. Decades later, Molina claimed that he fed a pair of green parrots that would visit him near his London flat. He’d capture their songs with his portable four-track tape recorder and splice the field recordings into various takes for songs like “Whisper Away” and “Behold the Truth.” It’s, of course, impossible to verify any of these tales, but the folklore adds a spookiness to an already fleeting, ghost-like collection.
The last spectral element of Eight Gates is heard in the two tracks that include Molina’s studio banter, the closing tracks from Side A (“She Says”) and Side B (“The Crossroad + The Emptiness”). “The perfect take is just, as long as the person singing is still alive. That’s really it … ” he says before beginning to pick the intro to the solo-acoustic ballad, “She Says.” In the last stanza, he sings, “Has the whole world forgotten me now / closes her eyes.” It’s an incomplete lyric within an unfinished song, recorded during a decidedly imperfect take. And yet, Eight Gates — and the reputation of Molina’s work — proves the world has not forgotten him. In fact, maybe there’s no perfect take for any life at all.