Not much can be said about Didn’t It Rain that hasn’t been articulated. The amount of ink spilled regarding the album, both at the time of its release and in the year since Songs: Ohia songwriter Jason Molina’s passing, should come as no surprise. Not only could a solid argument be made for the album as his defining work, but also as his release most thoroughly possessed of the nuanced darkness towards which his body of work always inclined itself.
Songs: Ohia – Didn’t It Rain (Secretly Canadian Records)
Not much can be said about Didn’t It Rain that hasn’t been articulated. The amount of ink spilled regarding the album, both at the time of its release and in the year since Songs: Ohia songwriter Jason Molina’s passing, should come as no surprise. Not only could a solid argument be made for the album as his defining work, but also as his release most thoroughly possessed of the nuanced darkness towards which his body of work always inclined itself. It’s something unable to be accurately summed up with terms like “depressing” or “sad,” but rather a conjuring of emotions as difficult to convey as a literal translation of saudade or weltschmerz into English.
Certainly some impression of the music can be put across, but a complex cocktail of feeling finds itself watered down in the translation, rendering the album’s delicate balance of crippling depression, nostalgic world-weariness, and faint glimmers of hope as some woefully inadequate dilution. Little point exists in even attempting to conjure some spirit that Didn’t It Rain has been able to evoke. A dozen years since the album made its way into the world, the songs have taken enough listeners into their dark, warm embraces that a recap is hardly necessary (and for those unfamiliar, please stop everything and listen to it with as few distractions as you can manage).
However, the second half of the recently re-released version, an additional album’s worth of demo recordings, bears consideration as well. First, any belief that the release of these demos constitutes the sort of crass cash-grab of which a savvy music fan would have cause to be wary (especially when the creator of such has ceased to occupy our mortal coil) easily finds itself dismissed by the quality of the songs, and of the performances’ starkness. Somewhat conversely, though these recordings certainly display a master songwriter at work, hyperbolic assessments of such rough sketches acting as some sort of analog of an early draft of the Magna Carta or Sistine Chapel ceiling (tempting though they may be) do the material a disservice as well.
Like the finished album, the Didn’t It Rain demos were recorded live in a single take with no studio trickery. Unlike the finished album, with its loose, lugubrious arrangements and its balance of lush instrumentation and stark minimalism, the early recordings possess the tense and unsettled quality of a troubled man with a guitar singing only to a microphone and to his demons. The lyrics had yet to fall wholly into place, the methodical chord strums hadn’t quite given way to loose plucking. Bearing in mind the nigh-perfect end result of their trajectory, the songs sound unfinished. Removed from context, however, each is a barely-healed scar, a half-remembered dream of heartache, a sand castle an hour before high tide – assertive but aware that any attempt to rage against dying lights will invariably be colored by entropy.
If the finished Didn’t It Rain constituted Jason Molina’s chronicle of a linear path towards his adopted Illinois home, a trek that traversed a dying Rust Belt, crossing the bridges out of Hammond towards a blue Chicago moon, the early recordings still sound trapped in whatever place he had hoped to escape. For all the sadness (for lack of a term possessing the proper depth) encapsulated in the end result, Didn’t It Rain also acted as a sort of communion, a varied group of musicians coming together in support of a distinct and singular vision. The demos do not. They’re lonely. They’re disconsolate. They’re terrified and terrifying.
No easy summation of this album or anything that led up to it exists, nor for that matter does anything that followed directly in its wake. A case can be made for the significance of Molina repeating the word “endless” in reference to depression eight times in the demo version of “Blue Chicago Moon,” rather than the six present in the album version, but the ultimate importance lies more with the sentiment that directly followed: “…but you are not helpless.” Though one could be forgiven for not picking up on it in the songs’ earliest incarnations, lights did flicker somewhere off in the distance towards the ends of Molina’s tunnels. Didn’t It Rain existed as a quietly apocalyptic statement of purpose, at a nexus point between the cthtonic and the spectral, the cosmically mystic and the brutally mundane. However, the component songs’ initial versions were neither mirror image nor stepping stone, but rather a necessary compliment, a shadow that walks before the body as the sun sets behind it.