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Daniel Johnston is an iPhone app. As bizarre as that might sound, it's completely true. Hi, How Are You, the game, is kind of like a bizarro-world blend of Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros. and Tetris, with Johnston's fantastical drawings rendered as 3D puzzle-solving mutants, all set to Johnston's own songs. If that's not a sign that the once utterly outsider artist has made it pretty fully into the mainstream, then such a sign simply doesn't exist.
The concept of Johnston's art as a commodity, and the artist himself as a figure of popular and critical acclaim, has always been a touchy one. Johnston's frequently crippling psychological problems have made claiming to be a fan a somewhat tricky ethical conundrum, the assumption being that the fascination lies with Johnston's personal demons rather than his deeply personal creations. The truth is a bit grayer than that.
Johnston's music is inexorably linked to the ebb and flow of his mental state, but that's true of anyone who has ever attempted to create art. The man himself is certainly aware of this interplay, and equally aware of the power of curiosity in shaping taste and opinion. He writes songs that open his life and his mind up to the world in such a naked way that it's impossible not to feel voyeuristic when listening to them.
He doesn't seem to mind. When Johnston appeared on MTV in the '80s to promote his album Hi, How Are You, he made reference to the fact that the record had been recorded while he was in the midst of a horrifying nervous breakdown. Johnston, who still lives next door to his parents in his hometown of Waller, has never quite employed his illness as a springboard to acceptance — but has never shied away from it, either.
That honesty and willingness to publicly explore what is so frequently a source of private shame should make Johnston a hero to anyone who has ever battled mental demons, from depressed and lovelorn teenagers to truly tortured individuals. His songs bring the demons that haunt us all — even if only the fear of being possessed by them — into the light.
For most of his career, Johnston has manifested his mental life through lo-fi recordings of plainly lisped vocals, simplistic instrumentation and sparse arrangements, a framework he uses to explore love and loss, life and death, music and devotion. The effect can be uplifting or haunting, depending on Johnston's mood.
For a while now, Johnston's mood has been on the upswing, and his brand-new release, Is and Always Was (High Wire Music), is the wonderful result.
"Fake Records of Rock and Roll" is an early indication that this is not the usual Daniel Johnston. It could be a great song, offering up a perfect set piece for the music-obsessive Johnston, but feels slightly artificial, like its own caricature, veering heavily into straightforward, glossily produced rock-record territory. It's either a very awkward try at a not at all awkward song, or a brilliant ploy, poking fun at his subject through the very method of the joke's delivery.
That would be about right for Johnston, an eager acolyte of the world of rock stars who has always found himself teetering between the desire for fame and his own self-doubt. Here he is, making a "rock record" for the first time, and decrying it in the same breath.
Eschewing his usual lo-fi take on fractured pop, Is and Always Was is a fully realized studio album, with aid from multi-instrumentalist and producer Jason Falkner (Beck, Air, Paul McCartney), as well as drummer Joey Waronker (R.E.M., Beck, Smashing Pumpkins). It takes a bit of getting used to at first, almost like watching your favorite movie in color for the first time.
The best moments are revelatory, like the loose, low, buzzing guitar that opens "Mind Movies," providing the perfect backdrop for Johnston's plain, slightly awkward, lisping delivery. The song quickly morphs into an upbeat guitar-pop track with a driving beat as Johnston sings obsessively about his love for a girl, while begging her not to run away, apologizing and explaining at the same time: "I'm just a psycho trying to write a song."
The intriguing question is whether that statement is addressed to the subject or the audience. The title track, meanwhile, offers spacey strumming as Johnston reels through cosmically charged mutterings, creating a perfect psych-pop piece that follows into "Lost in My Infinite Memory," while "Without You" comes across as an homage to '70s pop-rock acts, with riffing piano and intermingling synths.
Of course there are typically quirky moments, like the jovially juvenile inflection on "Queenie the Doggie," with its childlike lyrics, sunny, bouncy melody, hand claps, bells and barked interjections, reminiscent of Jonathan Richman's oddball, post-Modern Lovers output.
Throughout, the album shines and shimmers with a quality of sound that has always been lacking from Johnston's solo material. There has been a long tradition of admiring musicians "cleaning up" Johnston's songs (as on 2006's I Killed the Monster: 21 Artists Performing the Songs of Daniel Johnston), finding the gorgeous melodies and striking introspection of his music buried in his affably amateur recordings and giving them the bright sheen necessary for mass appeal.
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