My name is Matt McClendon. I was born in Virginia Beach, both of my parents had moved to the state from Kentucky. As a child I was always very different from my peers who were content to play outside or watch cartoons while I was always thinking about how to solve one problem or another, whatever seemed to be the most pressing issue at the time. There were any number of things that I could have been thinking about, but I spent the most time thinking about psychological and philosophical issues.
I graduated from Old Dominion University in 2008 with a B.A. in Psychology.
You can contact me with any questions or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
Just Be Simple
At the start of the song Jason Molina seems to be singing about resigning to his loneliness, and not bluffing to friends about how he has a new plan to escape from the home he built. To me he’s singing about himself in third person throughout the song, like when he says “We built that house of his”– the ‘we’ being his mind and body. They built that house of loneliness, why move somewhere else and rebuild the house there? This is a song about a man who has lost faith in everything.
With that in mind, heaven would seem to be an ideal which has came and gone before but this time if it comes back he’s hoping it fails before it even arrives because he’s lost faith (in the sense of confidence/trust in things and people). Heaven is a dangerous ideal because it provides a person with a temporary sense that things will be alright when deep down he feels that they wont be.
The night would seem to be depression/darkness, and at least it knows “when it’s time to get going.” The night has always had that ghost who almost tells him that he’s still the same person he always was– despite the fact that the woman thinks that he’s changed and she hates him for it. I really relate to the line “Honey there was so much more- I just didn’t get busted.” Toward the end of our relationship my most recent ex said “I don’t know why you’re so damn sad all of the time.” All I was doing was listening to music ( “Whiskey in my Whiskey” by the Felice Brothers) but it was enough to affect her mindstate/feelings– I’ve been this same person ever since I was a small child, just because she didn’t hear my music doesn’t mean my feelings were different.
The refrain of “Try and try and try” could be the most simple but complex part of the song, my interpretation is that he’s longing for the simple sorrows of yesterday, those before the time of addiction and all the accumulated pains of life– something that I think back to often as I didn’t have any lasting sense of happiness as a child. In a sense the song seems to be about the failed relationship he had with his own inner peace, and his inability to overcome his own sadness and the consequence this had for all future relationships.
This is an interesting contrast to The Raven by Edgar A Poe:
The narrator of this story has already built a house of sorrow and filled it to the brim with thoughts. The raven itself would seem to be a more humanized version of the ideal of Heaven, it was similar in that it was also suggested that it would leave others before it. In The Raven, the narrator began to cause himself to suffer by asking questions of the raven when he knew the answer would be the same repetition. He went from curiosity, to anger, to resignation, which is the state that Jason, or the narrator of Simple Man would seem to be in.
Of course the wife died in The Raven while the girlfriend left him because she was seemingly unable to deal with his sadness so this would explain the much more intimate experience of Poe’s tale and the torment of the narrator’s soul.
As above, so below.
Alone With the Owl
Like many of Jason’s songs, this song is about depression. Owls have always been a symbol of higher knowledge and the connection between the physical and spirit world and he uses them this way here. The noise that owls make can sometimes sound mournful and the way that it usually comes from the darkness of the woods makes them seem even more alone with their intelligence and pain– a single point of light in a world filled with darkness. Owls are nocturnal creatures (as are many depressed people for various reasons), they inhabit the world between life and death, light and dark, and for them life will always be filled with loneliness because they occupy a threshold, a space between two places.
A stray black dog is one with no master, and in many cultures dogs, especially black ones, are associated with death, the underworld, and/or bad luck. In some areas of Europe it was thought that the first man to be buried in a new churchyard was eternally responsible for guarding it from the devil, so in order to protect the souls of the people buried there a black dog would be buried alive in new church yards. Man is a peculiar animal, one that is neurologically wired for a god, so he needs a master and without one he wanders alone.
The ocean is a symbol of birth and the primordial origin of life, it’s usually considered to be feminine in nature and waves in particular are one of the most common metaphorical elements because of their dual nature to give and take life. As Jason stood beside the ocean with not a single wave, this creates a surreal image of a motionless ocean, a life stuck between two places, without meaning.
The song ends with the line “Did I have to live this way?” and this reminds me of the quote by Soren Kierkegaard, “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” Jason lived as he felt, alone, and this song is perhaps a eulogy to the decision which he made without making, because it was already made for him. Standing at the crossroads between here and there, one can get a good look at each but never really know either.
The Old Black Hen
The Old Black Hen would seem to be a symbol of Jason’s depression/melancholy, like Churchill’s Black Dog it was an old familiar which moved metaphorically with the man, but the hen also seems to have been passed down from generation to generation since time immemorial. Dogs have long been a symbol of loyalty, and in many cultures they are associated with death and the underworld, but universally canines are a totem animal which acts as an intermediary between the natural world and that of man so to embody one’s dark feelings with the animal is in a way to use it to navigate the threshold between the two opposing worlds. Hens on the other hand have been used much less often as symbols of this kind, but one ancient usage of black hens involved the sprinkling of grain on the ground which a diviner would allow the bird to eat and then interpret the pattern left by the remaining grain. In relation to the song, the importance of this symbolism perhaps lies in the way that the hen predicts the future in a way with its Bad Luck Lullaby which could be dark, brooding thoughts of not only one’s own demise, but of the fate shared by all life and all of creation– indicated by the lines:
“Come right on in, it’s midnight again
time for the Bad Luck Lullaby
you know the one it’s the same one you sung
when you wrote down the Revelations”
An interesting thing about this is the way the song starts off with it being time for the lullaby for the individual, Jason perhaps, but it moves on to being the same song which was sung so long ago for the writer of Revelations, who was perhaps the hen itself singing through the words of the writer. So we move from the pain of the individual to that of ancient man who foresaw the end of all creation and back to the present time where the narrator is advising the hen to sing the lullaby to the next generation “so they know what comes next.” The final turning point is where the narrative goes back to the individual who “saw the Banner hanging over” his door and “knew who the party was for–” all of his pain, the collective pain of countless generations whose worlds died with them.
The Black Record mentioned toward the end of the song would seem to be a personal embodiment of the Bad Luck Lullaby, an existential cry expressing the pain of life. In the end Jason advised the listener to look to the future, the sadness of the stranger and tell them that he was doing his best to sing the Blues the way he found them. He had created a record which embodied the Bad Luck Lullaby which he carried alone since the time of his birth and that was the best he could do.
“Look down the long street
And see who’s that crying
Tell them that every day I lived
I was trying to sing the blues
the way I find them.”
Hold on Magnolia
At the start of the song Jason seems to be telling a woman, Magnolia, to hold onto the moon- the moon seems to be a symbol of hope for a better tomorrow. But at the same time the moon also symbolizes the unknown and unknowable, the future, and by looking up at it the same way our ancestors did tens of thousands of years ago we can hope for a better tomorrow. In this way the moon is a great highway which is transporting us away from the pain, suffering, and greed rampant in the world.
A motif in many of Jason’s songs is trains, or technology which would have been more common during the late 1800s to early 1900s- this could be significant in many ways. One being that cars take one person to one destination which could be anywhere while trains take groups of people to specific destinations. Destinations where we will all go one day. The station bell rings for him and the woman might be holding the last light he sees, in this sense he’s counting on her to be his light and keep the darkness at bay.
The refrain of Hold on Magnolia gives importance and a dream-like quality to the song which seems to be about a man who is dying on some level and telling a woman to stay hopeful and strong. He’s had his doubts about her intentions, and probably everything, at times but in his last moment he’s come to peace with them and is thankful for the things she’s done for him.
The thunder and the rain seem to symbolize the power of the natural world but also the intersection of the human/mental world with that of the physical/natural world. Another common motif in Jason’s songs is being at a crossroad between two places, in this case that of the human world, the world of words, and that of natural law. The lightning signing his name to the bottom line is a way of saying that no one escapes their eventual fate.
The station bell has rung for him and the lonesome whistle whines in the distance, he knows the end is coming soon and he wants it to be spent with the woman he cares about.