Daniel Johnston “Is and Always Was” (Feraltone, 2009)
Always is and always was worth listening to
Johnston usually attracts more column inches about his travails with mental illness than the music and art that he produces. Not so here, the focus here is how suited to a shiny veneer of production he is, others have faltered when switching from lo to hi-fi (or attracted traitorous cries on a par with Dylan going electric – GBV) or accusations of selling out. Even the Minutemen tried it with Project Mersh, and Will Oldham has flirted with conventional structures, there’s no guarantee that a producer can not either obliterate the essence of a performer nor can they always polish a turd. In any case Jason Falkner doesn’t really indulge in a huge amount of gloss; he just lovingly fleshes out the sound to give a fuller sound to the songs.
The results differ (but then so does the quality of the songs) ‘Without You’ with glitzy glam pop highlights, stomping piano, Tetris keyboards and FM guitar grate up against Johnston’s struggling voice and just about submerge it in the arrangement. In contrast there is plenty of guitar noise swirling around the song-speak of ‘I Had Lost My Mind’ that perfectly complements the song, this brief minute or so shows what can be done. The more conventionally structured songs don’t really suit Johnston’s style, ‘Freedom’ suffers, harpsichords shouldn’t be allowed near him, he’s not a floppy cuff performer. Simple does, ‘Tears’ is left pretty much to Johnston and his simple man-child croon and when his voice disappears down corridors of guitars as it does on the title track the result is that he ends up in the place where he belongs.
Complexity doesn’t suit the naïf lyrics, Johnston deals with simple profound truths, they are almost transparent, the rhymes are simple too, ‘Light of Day’ could sound trite but it is delivered in such a way that it gains traction. Here Falkner flirts with prog and oversteps, adding layers over the song detracts from it, the car, far, star chorus is great, there’s just too much flab in the middle and I’m sure Johnston has never been to six and a half minutes before. It’s good that Johnston is still around and though this doesn’t have the raw impact of the recent re-releases there’s still enough of a spark of originality that makes him the artist that he is.
Date review added: Thursday, November 12, 2009
Reviewer: David Cowling
Related web link: Speeding super information highway