Once considered a sad outsider oddity in the vein of Wild Man Fischer, The Shaggs or Shooby Taylor The Human Horn, Daniel Johnston appears finally to be heading for mainstream recognition, a mere 20 albums into his career.
Still probably best remembered as the subject of Kurt Cobain's favourite T-shirt, Johnston's innocent, rough'n' ready songs gradually accrued him a celebrity fanbase whose number includes David Bowie, Tom Waits, Matt Groening and Johnny Depp. But his reputation was built at considerable personal cost, with Johnston committed to a mental hospital for a while. Fit again, he's considered a bona fide outsider artist, with his paintings and drawings exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and London's Aquarium Gallery, the Lyon Opera Ballet performing to his music, and an award-winning documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about to open in the UK.
His sleeve illustration to Lost and Found gives a good impression of his style: recalling Dylan's painting for Music for Big Pink, it's a charming, cartoonish piece of naïve art, which matches his music to a T. Whether accompanied by full rock-band backing or plunking on ukulele, Johnston always sounds a little as if he's making it up, and accordingly, his songs tend to start out as pastiches before taking bizarre left turns. Take "Country Song", Daniel's idea of a country song. "Well, it's been a long time since I've had a drink of alcohol/ Since the babies grieved and grandma lost a leg," he begins. Then suddenly, it takes a darker turn: "There ain't no sense in dragging the lake any more/ There are bats in the belfry, and there is liquor in the store." What is going on here?
Or how about his celebrated tribute song "The Beatles", which starts out as a simple testimonial before sliding into the grey area between pathos and bathos with an abrupt "And I wanted to be like him/ But he died." It's typical of the way Johnston deals with the truth in its most unvarnished form: there's a self-lacerating honesty behind his childish melodies and fantasies of stardom - "When my ego was shattered, she said it didn't really matter"; "It's cold and I'm locked up" - and he's learnt how to use the singalong style to soften up listeners for the lyrical knock-out punch that usually follows.
Most of these tracks roll along on ramshackle arrangements, but manage to find a wide range of approaches, from the Polynesian simplicity of "It's Impossible" to the ELO cellos of "History of Our Love". But whatever mode he's using, there's never any doubt about whose songs these are, or what makes them special.
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