[21 October 2009]
Daniel Johnston occupies an interesting place in popular culture. He became widely known from a t-shirt Kurt Cobain wore a lot in public in 1992, but had been plying his trade in the American indie music scene for about a decade by then. Releasing his mainly home recorded tapes (often with personalised, individually drawn artwork for each copy) into a listening public that was, by turns, enthralled (for the naive, songwriterly talent, the sincerity and awkward, insecure charm) or put off (by the heart-on-sleeveness, by the unabashed sentimentality), Johnston had attained a level of minor fame even before Cobain’s endorsement. MTV had showcased his raw talent, Sonic Youth had brought him to New York, and the indie rock community embraced the man, by and large, for his unique voice.
However, the flipside of this was Johnston’s precocious mental state. This fact, and how it has been defined, and defined his music, has been a consistent thread throughout the three (broad) stages of his career. First: the early days of breaking out of Austin, Texas and getting exposed to the gaze of a television audience, singing about “living (his) broken dreams” and getting caught up in fame, getting frazzled on LSD, and having to take a lot of time out to cope with the resulting fractures. Second: the post-Kurt Cobain era, when he became swept up in the search for saleable authenticity that categorised grunge music. And third, the current stage: the generation who have come to know Johnston through the journalistic enthusiasm for his classic songwriting, through the mythmaking of the mentally troubled genius, through The Devil And Daniel Johnston‘s delving into his life’s story.
Johnston plays live pretty frequently, his fragile presence bolstered by musical accompaniment that has included Jad Fair, Teenage Fanclub, and Sparklehorse in the past, well-respected artists who have helped out their friend and his songs, much like the Wondermints’ effect on Brian Wilson’s live shows. But the question is: how can an artist like Johnson still be considered vital after all the canonisation, all the (un)critical hosannahs bestowed upon him, the kidglove treatment that’s expected above all else when dealing with his work? Due to the mythologising, the spiels, endorsements, deals, and reputation building, has Johnston become a member of an unoffical indie rock hall of fame? Perhaps he has been put in a critical safety zone—just as Bob Dylan is guaranteed a decent review by Mojo magazine, Johnston is going to get bigged up by a considerable chunk of Indie (capitalisation intentional) hacks. Alas, sacred cows are always being created, especially in the effusive, emotive world of arts writing.
His latest album is definitely influenced by the placing of his work in classic terms. Jason Falkner’s production is definitely a little bombastic at times—from what sounds like basic tracking of Johnston’s guitar and voice, the backing music added pays homage to lots of aspects of classic rock, both the FM radio staples and the quirkier, idiosyncratic ones. The first strand is straight out of the box with the lead off song “Mind Movies”, which sounds as if Johnston is envisioned fronting the Who. I don’t think it works, and feels a bit roughly pasted in, unlike the pastiches of Guided By Voices and Robert Pollard. These ring true, or sound right, and it doesn’t help that Johnston’s lisp cuts into the song intermittently, and I think his whine hasn’t gone the distance. Is it a reminder of some “authenticity”, is it more real for that? I just don’t think it sounds that good.
The quirkier classics are then given nods, from The White Album-era Beatles (“Queenie The Doggie”) to the Kinks satire stylings (“Fake Records of Rock and Roll”), even to his earlier work (“Tears”). But therein lies the problem: every style comes of as if it’s being parodied, and unlike his earlier work, or his collaborations with Half Japanese, say, it doesn’t sound like anything new or halfway interesting. You need to be a believer for this stuff, and, like the vibe I’ve heard of some of his live shows, a lot depends on how much effort the listener’s willing to put in to fantasise something “amazing” out of it. If you don’t buy into that, it’s not that big a deal. Lyrically, it’s confessional, raw and straight up, but isn’t that simply a cliché of the man’s music at this stage?
Then again, if you’re a D.J. devotee, you should love this, and there are songs that could be loved, like “I Had Lost My Mind”, a tune which sounds vital, and is lyrically witty and focused, punning a bit like Syd Barrett at his peak, referencing himself but backed by music that’s actually quirky. The thing is, it’s a cover of an older song—simply given a quick service for 2009. Personally, I wouldn’t be that interested in going back to Is And Always Was (what’s in a title?) again. For devout followers, not new converts.