Filed under: Issue 19, Issue 19 Reviews | Tags: Daniel Johnston, Is and Always Was, The Devil and Daniel Johnston
WE GIVE IT: 15/20 Watts
MEDIA: Check out our Daniel Johnston PODCAST
In the early 1980s, a gangly, bloody youth stumbled into a church in Austin, Texas, looking for medical assistance. A few months prior, he had bought a moped, run away from home and joined a carnival — before a hulking carnie beat him up and left him for dead.
Such is the disjointed life of Daniel Johnston, the bipolar, cassette-wielding, “outsider” musician who’s been largely ignoring both social and musical conventions since the early ’80s.
Johnston’s latest release, Is and Always Was, continues the erraticism and unpredictability that has defined his life and his career, detailed in award-winning documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Is and Always Was stepping the production up tenfold from his lo-fi origins but preserves the brilliance that fellow musicians and journalists have raved about for years. Previously-released track “I Had Lost My Mind” boasts the benefits of Jason Falkner’s hi-fi production early on: Falkner manipulates drums, electric guitars and even electronic fills to turn a strictly-good song into what could be stand as one of the Phil Spector-influenced Beatles standards that Johnston lovingly draws inspiration from.
At the same time, Johnston has not lost his power for irony, drama and despair. On “Fake Records of Rock and Roll,” he rattles off tongue-in-cheek criticisms of the very genre he’s trying to penetrate. Power chords blast through distortion as Johnston shouts rocker-isms like “look out!” before singing “well it sounds just like shit to me.”
Similarly, a lisped delivery on the song “Tears” retains his classic themes of love and madness, repackaging them into a dirge fit for aborted relationships everywhere. And as with most of his work, the beauty is in the brevity.
Months ago, the overweight 41-year-old was an all-but-forgotten as a lost cause — the reclusive, depressing-to-discuss trailblazer of independent music. With Is and Always Was he trumps his status as an “outsider,” releasing a confident, accessible, well-constructed record that attests to both his condition and his willingness to overcome it and give us what we want: his music.
— Eric Vilas-Boas