[10 July 2003]
Daniel Johnston is probably best known for being hailed by Kurt Cobain. But to stop there or to even start there would be a grave injustice. The West Virginian began listening to Dylan, Neil Young, the Beatles and Sex Pistols before moving to Austin, Texas. Making all of his recordings at home, Johnston would take the demo to radio stations and labels personally, asking those who received them to listen to them. And listen to them while he was there. In 1985, after having his hours cut back at McDonald’s, MTV had him on and from there his underground status grew. But it was all too much for him. A mental breakdown resulted in a trip to the Austin State Hospital.
Coming out the other side, the notoriously shy Johnston has toured, opening recently for Yo La Tengo. And this double album of songs demonstrates what all the hoopla was about. From the opening “Grievances”, the hiss and at times dirty sound becomes all the more appealing when Johnston talks about librarians buying respect. Sounding a bit like early Dylan, especially given the arrangement, the tune sounds like it’s coming from an innocent child, not some twenty-something. “A Little Story” is a brief narrative about how the universe allegedly began. Shuffling his lyric sheets, which he still does today while playing live, makes the intimacy all the more appealing. “Joy without Pleasure” is another early gem with Johnston on piano.
The Devil and the battle between good and evil is a constant theme, but there is also some insight into the musician’s home life. “Brainwash” begins with an argument with his mother and how she is under-appreciated. But then he tells about a girl and sticking his head in a fire hydrant. “Pothead” is at times quite unnerving and brutally honest. “You wanted to be somebody / But you ain’t nobody / You ain’t go nobody”, Johnston sings, perhaps in self-reflection. The song builds into a rollicking tune in which he gives one of his best performances. The song resembles a bit of what Paul Westerberg did on Suicaine Gratification. “Wicked World” has a simple piano chord structure while Johnston says sin is a wonderful disease. “I Save Cigarette Butts” sounds straight out of Tom Waits with its choppy nature and odd opening.
A lot of these songs have a minimal yet inviting rhythm, much like early Velvet Underground. While Johnston isn’t as lyrically slick as Lou Reed, the method to his lyrical madness is very similar. “Like a Monkey in a Zoo” is another upbeat song despite the content. “Wild West Virginia” shows Johnston wanting to go back to those “rolling hills”. In spite of this minimalism there is a lot of depth to the songs, particularly on “Since I Lost My Tooth”, a brief yet infectious tune. These songs also have more of a structure than what would later become popular among underground music circles. The best of the first 20, despite a glaring screw-up of the cassette tape, is “Living Life”. Here Johnston gives his most soulful effort as he speeds up the tempo on piano.
If there’s one negative to the album, it might be that the whiney vocals Johnston offers up can be challenging at times. But overall it’s easy on the ears. The Peanuts piano oozing from “Premarital Sex” is probably the closest thing to describing how Johnston approaches the piano. And the second disc is no different. The songs bring to mind the comedy of They Might Be Giants, but too often they are vignettes of a man losing his grip. “Phantom of My Own Opera” comes across a bit like Ben Folds on a bad day. The sound of these recordings is a slight improvement, especially the clarity of “Only Missing You”. Rarely does he repeat himself or refer to other lyrics, but he does on the lengthy and rambling “More Dead Than Alive”, a tune whereby he refers to a monkey in a zoo.
Highlights of the second disc include “You Put My Love out the Door”, a melodic and somber mid-tempo tune where Johnston pours his heart out yet again about an old flame. There are some mistakes, though, especially the ragged and average “Never Get to Heaven”. But he atones for it with some lovely high notes on “Follow That Dream”, which takes into him sounding like a saxophone. “Blue Cloud” brings to mind an early Wilco, particularly with the alt-country piano arrangement. You can also hear the slide guitar in your head veering in and out. Guitars are heard over “Grievances Revisited”, giving off a very distorted rock angle to the song. On the whole though, this is a great starting point to one of the true alt-rock originals.