[17 June 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
One thing is pretty much for certain when it comes to the music of Daniel Johnston: you generally don’t sit on the fence with him; you either love him or hate him. (Or, in the case of the mainstream, you have no clue as to who he is, though that might change due to a rumored biopic in the works that could star Johnny Depp, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly.) For those not in the know, Daniel Johnston is something out of an outsider musician whose biggest claim to fame in the indie world is for releasing a series of albums on cassette tape throughout the ‘80s that were Spartan and lo-fi. For some, Johnston’s early output is something of a revelation: plainly sung, earnest songs backed up with a cheap organ or guitar recorded on a $59 boom box. For others, Johnston’s mewly vocals are akin to fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard. It seems that the majority of people probably fall into the latter camp, considering that Johnston’s sole major label record, 1994’s Fun, only sold a few thousand copies. Johnston is indeed an acquired taste.
So it’s strange that I find myself on the fence with Daniel Johnston. As someone who struggles with mental illness personally, I find Johnston to be a heroic figure as he notably has grappled with a bipolar disorder, and very seriously, as the illuminating documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston points out. The fact that he has had such a long and varied recording career in the face of that is something to behold. And lyrically, Johnston’s songwriting is so heart-on-his-sleeve, and his delivery so non-ironic that at its best, it is very often poignant and heartbreaking in a child-like way. (Sample: “And all my friends were vampires / didn’t know they were vampires / turns out I was a vampire myself / in the Devil Town”.) However, I’ve decided to hold Johnston’s music at a distance, not really able to get past his high-pitched, kid-like voice, and his early field recordings, which sometimes don’t hit all of the right notes. I always found songs like “Premarital Sex” or “Walking the Cow” interesting in concept, even though it was often hard to derive real pleasure or entertainment from them. Basically, you don’t crank up a Daniel Johnston song in your car with the windows rolled down, unless, of course, you really want to get stared at by pedestrians.
Perhaps seeking to reach any potential fence-sitters like me, Johnston has decided to dust off some of his classic-period material through Beam Me Up!! in an effort to make these songs seem more palatable. The album does offer a new completely a cappella song as an opener, “Sarah Drove Around In Her Car”, but what follows are mostly jazzed-up or baroque versions of songs culled from Johnston’s classic ‘80s and ‘90s period (as well as three from 2003’s Fear Yourself) backed up by the 11-piece Dutch BEAM Orchestra. There are also a couple of other new songs which feature just Johnston and an electric guitar, one named “Mask”, and the other—“Last Song”—which is actually the penultimate track on the disc.
As a document, Beam Me Up!! is a bit baffling. Johnston has already been lionized in various compilation and tribute albums, so there should be a great deal of familiarity with much of the work presented here among his fans. You probably only need it if you’re really serious about collecting those three previously unheard songs, which go against the grain of Johnston’s Steely Dan compulsion on this record. You may also want to take a listen if you’re curious to hear what “Walking The Cow” would sound like if its tempo was sped up greatly with a groovy beat and saxophones squonking in the background. For the newcomer, though, this disc is certainly more accessible than his basement recordings. Still, I’d recommend delving into Johnston’s past work first to get a sense of his peculiar temperament and whether or not it jives with you.
In other words, Beam Me Up!! is a bit of a curio record in the way that Todd Rundgren’s album of his greatest hits done in boss nova style, 1997’s With a Twist ..., was essentially unessential. Johnston seemingly wanted to collaborate with people who were on his wavelength, but, by jumping headlong into the past, the album has the feel of a cash-grab: just another way to get the old fans and the curious to shell out for some of the old favorites once again. And while the old songs in their original form were sometimes tough to penetrate due to the high-pitched vocals, this album proves that time hasn’t been kind to the voice of Daniel Johnston. At certain points, Johnston reaches for high notes only to warble off-key, which is really incongruous with the professional backing of BEAM, which is really spot on and always on target. At other times, his voice now sounds gravelly, a little like hearing Herschel Krustofski trying to do his take on the songs of Daniel Johnston. It’s not only off-putting, it’s embarrassing. You have to give Johnston points for trying, but this is a case where his ambition more often than not produces an untenable result.
Also, in trying to dress up the songs, Johnston moves away from one of his core strengths: intimacy. It’s too easy to get carried away with the lite-jazz noodling, which takes all of the emphasis away from the lyrics and depersonalizes the songs in a way—particularly on “Devil Town”, which once was sung without any instrumentation, now backed by careering fiddles and horns into something much more melodramatic. BEAM does do an outstanding job—with perhaps the only exception being the too-jumpy “Walking The Cow”—of adding a professional sheen to the songs, and despite the lack of personalization, the jazzy and disco-like touches on songs are helpful for Johnston neophytes to more fully embrace Johnston’s idiosyncrasies. At the same time, these songs do nothing to make you forget the originals, even though the older songs had their patchiness.
All in all, Beam Me Up!! is a bit of a puzzle. It is such a musical mixed bag—with the a cappella song blending in with the jazz updates and two other new songs that are just sparse voice and guitar—that it’s hard to make heads or tails of it. Is this another greatest hits album? Not exactly. Is this a reinvention of Johnston’s signature sound? Not quite, thanks to the presence of the guitar-based songs. It just seems so thrown together, and has no general coherence to it, that this is a disc that is all too, unfortunately, easy to dismiss. It’s probably a one-off, a holding pattern, until Johnston comes up with his next batch of all original material. One thing’s for sure: thanks to the general mish-mash that is Beam Me Up!!, this reviewer, alas, won’t be getting off that fence anytime in the near future, and is even perilously closer to swinging a leg over to the punter’s side.