Mental illness can be tough enough, but mental illness alongside fame? Bringing with it the kind of cult adulation that can entail all the potential misunderstanding and reflected outsider-status condescension previously suffered by the likes of Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, among others? And all this within the often harsh and fickle world of independent music. How has such a nakedly unguarded artist as Daniel Johnston, with his well-documented bipolar disorder, survived the scrutiny of semi-celebrity and managed to release over 15 full-length largely-acclaimed-if-uneven records since 1980? Well, aside from talent of course, friends within the industry, that’s how. Whether for genuine reasons or not, Johnston has been championed by many of indie rock’s leading lights (Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, and even Kurt Cobain spring to mind), sometimes to a cloying degree.
With Fear Yourself, Johnston’s often minimal (piano, guitar) work is on this occasion more than supplemented by surprisingly lavish production work from another insider friend, Mark Linkous (of Sparklehorse). Nothing of the former’s endearingly skewed sincerity has been lost in the (far more lush than usual) mix, although existing fans enamoured of his previous lo-fi aesthetic might find themselves disappointed. Linkous may modestly leave his own name off the cover, but in showcasing his caged songbird he is doing a heck of a lot of the grunt work himself.
That lo-fi aesthetic, incidentally, is referenced and then almost knowingly mocked right off the bat, when Johnston’s cartoonishly tinny voice and even tinnier chicken scratch guitar open the first 90 or so seconds of the first track, “Now”, before blossoming into a gorgeous surround sound that basically sticks around for the remainder of the proceedings. Sure, “less is more” can be often true, but in this case more is just enough, even with the seemingly cluttered addition throughout of such exotica as mellotron, theremin, chamberlin, orchestron, and optigan. Despite its heartbreaking spectral frailty, Johnston’s voice is not subsumed by all this surrounding ostentation. If anything, it only adds to the aura of childlike bravery speaking up amid a bigger scarier world that is Johnston’s trademark. His voice remains as fragile and guileless as ever under these more sumptuous circumstances, and his palpable need to believe such naked sentiments as “Love can save you now” or “I love you more than myself” can be disarmingly moving, even while it makes you squirm.
Indeed, the unifying element of this album, despite the title, is not fear but love. A quick perusal of the track list reveals the following: “Love Enchanted”, “Power of Love”, “Forever Your Love”, and “Love Not Dead”, and Johnston must use the word “love ” here more times than Tony Montana employs the word “fuck” in Scarface. And if you’re still not convinced, all over the CD booklet there is Johnston’s compelling pen-and-marker art featuring, among other things, a Frankenstein’s monster cradling a similarly freakish mate under the caption “In Love All Problems Disappear”. Perhaps the titular fear is of simply losing faith in that love, and what that might do to someone missing so many layers of skin (or perhaps, layers of ironic detachment).
It’s tempting to quote reams of lyrics in order to demonstrate this weighted love/fear equation, but that would cheat the listener of a delightful journey of very personal discovery. Alternately lonely, funny, lost and wincingly vulnerable, occasionally astonishing even, this collection of piano ballads and mid-tempo quirky pop-rock songs is rich pickings provided you suspend that knee-jerk cynicism and listen with your heart.
However, as excellent a record as this is—and Linkous the musician and producer has certainly done a very good job here—something doesn’t feel quite right about the larger concept. Hearts in right places aside, what is confusing about the music industry’s response to (and packaging of) Daniel Johnston’s music is how unnecessary all the hand wringing is. So he’s mentally ill? Big deal. I don’t mean to sound harsh. Of course it’s a big deal to Johnston himself (and fellow sufferers everywhere), but, really, how is the existence of a creative person who wrestles constantly with a psychological disorder even surprising in a world that’s given us Beethoven, Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Michelangelo (among many others)? The vaunting of his talent and his psychosis as if they’re inseparable is perhaps understandable, but the unmistakable taint of condescension in the air points to a more generalized misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness, almost as if those most impressed by Johnston’s achievements are mistaking the mentally ill for the mentally challenged. The only thing challenged here is the listener—to put away preconceptions and hear Fear Yourself for what it actually is, an admittedly flawed but remarkably honest document of one person’s struggle to believe in love.