Jason Molina knew the blues. The singer-songwriter behind Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. wasn’t a traditionalist or even a conventional blues musician — to hear his music, you wouldn’t think to call it that. More often his style is a dark and haunting folk-rock, sometimes infused with the rock-and-roll roar of Crazy Horse at their most raggedly glorious and elsewhere stark to the point of being eerily skeletal. “Just Be Simple,” on Songs: Ohia’s final album Magnolia Electric Co. — or Magnolia Electric Co.’s first album depending on how you look at it — is somewhere between those two poles, soulful and stinging with a desperate loneliness, but carrying a grit that gives it a glimmer of hope even when the sadness is overwhelming.
The Molina at the heart of “Just Be Simple” isn’t at peace with his depression and isolation, but he acknowledges it with a plainspoken, matter-of-fact sensibility. “You’ll never hear me talk about one day getting out,” he sings. “Why put a new address on the same old loneliness?” It sounds bleak, even fatalistic, but there’s something almost zen-like in the way Molina frames the darkness that follows him. He doesn’t long for genuine happiness: “If Heaven’s really coming back, I hope it has a heart attack.” It’s in the title of the song where that faint glimpse of a bright future lies, however fleeting. Molina’s not “looking for an easy way out.” He just needs to live with the pain.
There’s a universal feeling at the heart of “Just Be Simple,” as there is with most of Molina’s songs, whether he’s singing about being alone in the world, or whether he’s describing the Rust-Belt landscapes of the Midwest and its eerie, blue moon. In fact, it’s been covered numerous times by the likes of the Avett Brothers and Amanda Shires. Scott Avett describes the song as “not only a sentiment that I know and live by but is a song that I listened to once or twice and could recite the lyrics to. It was as if I never had to learn it, it was just in me.”
Molina, himself, never quite escaped the darkness. In 2013 he died of organ failure after a long struggle with alcoholism, cutting his career short at age 39. But in spite of his tragic, untimely passing, he gave listeners the gift that maybe he needed the most. Songs like “Just Be Simple” are sad, but they bring us comfort. They make us feel as if someone else understands.
“Anytime a song can be truthful and relatable is a successful song to me,” Shires says of the song. “We are supposed to have songs that help us get us through difficult times, we need songs to get us through shit. This song makes me feel less alone in the world and I think that’s what good songs are supposed to do.”