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Sometime in 2006 or 2007, Jason Molina moved from the midwest to London. Separated from his bandmates and friends and never one for idleness, Molina explored his new home with fervor. Sometimes he’d head out on foot, often with no destination in mind. Other times, he’d pick a random tube stop and find his way back home. He’d pick up on arcane trivia about London’s rich history, and if the historical factoids weren’t available – or weren’t quite to his liking – Molina was quite comfortable conjuring his own history. His adoration of The Great American Tall Tales like John Henry and Paul Bunyan’s blue ox Babe stretched across the Atlantic, where he created his own personal Tall Tales. And when he learned of the London Wall’s seven gates (itself a misconception), Molina went ahead and called it eight, carving out a gate just for himself. The eighth gate was Molina’s way into London, a gate only passable in the mind.
Fast forward to 2008, Molina set off on an experimental solo tour through Europe. While in Northern Italy, Molina claimed to have been bitten by a rare, poisonous spider. A debilitating bout of illness ensued. “I was in the hospital here in London,” Molina wrote in a letter. “Saw six doctors and a Dr. House-type guy. They are all mystified by it, but I am allowed to be at home, where I am taking a dozen scary Hantavirus type pills a day that are all to supposedly help – but they make me feel like shit.” There is no record of a single doctor visit, not any prescription record for these medications. It is entirely plausible there was no spider and that whatever was keeping him indoors during this time was entirely self-induced. While at home, he of course wrote songs. Molina also claimed that during this time, he fed several bright green parrots that would gather in his yard. While often associated with a greyscale sensibility, Molina was oft-clad in a Hawaiian shirt and had, at least in part, selected the name Songs: Ohia for his first project as a nod to Hawaii’s ‘Ohi’a lehua flower. Which is all to say, the tropical element the parakeets brought to those sick days delighted Molina. He made short, crude field recordings of them with his trusty four-track. Only once Molina was officially on the mend and re-exploring the streets of London would he learn that those parrots had their own fabled tale. Back in the 60s, Jimi Hendrix – in a moment of psychedelic clarity – released his pair of lime green ring-necked parakeets from their cage, setting them free into the London sky. Now, their decendents are spotted regularly around certain parts of the city. Or so we’re told. Eight Gates is the last collection of solo studio recordings Molina made before he passed from complications related to alcoholism in 2013. Recorded in London around the time of the supposed spider bite and Jimi’s supposed parakeets, some of the songs (“Whispered Away,” “Thistle Blue”) are fully-realized – dark, moody textures that call to mind his earlier work on The Lioness. Knowing what we know about those parakeets and their peppered presence on the recordings, one can’t help but think of that colorful tree of birds on Talk Talk’s classic Laughing Stock, certainly a spiritual guide for much of the set. Other songs (“She Says,” “The Crossroads and The Emptiness”) lay in a more unfinished states, acoustic takes that call to mind Molina’s Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go, and still tethered to Molina’s humorous studio banter. You remember how young Molina was, and how weighty this art was for such a young man. On the closer, “The Crossroads and The Emptiness,” Molina snaps at the engineer before tearing into a song in which he sings of his birthday (December 30), a palm reading and the great emptiness with which he always wrestled. It is a perfect closer and, in many ways, the eighth gate incarnate: mythical, passable only in the mind, built for himself and partway imaginary but shared, thankfully, with us.