The beauty of Daniel Johnston‘s famed early work resides in the way in which the atmosphere reflected and imbued the involved emotion. He sung about being lonely, and – with just one organ and one voice on the recordings – he sure sounded it. He sung about being misunderstood, and – with a chillingly childlike voice, oddball lyrics and bum notes aplenty – we could tell why that might be.
This new album (his 26th!) finds him produced by Jason Falkner (Paul McCartney, Beck) and accompanied by a very accomplished band and some equally respectful arrangements. Alas, this sometimes results in the record sounding rather like the product of an M.O.R. band with a slightly atonal lead singer. There has been so much gloss and polish applied that one begins to wonder if the staff of this record ever debated autotuning Johnston’s gummy lisp, just to complete their Mr. Sheen job.
Grumbles of authenticity aside, there are admittedly some lovely songs here. ‘Queenie The Doggie’ juxtaposes a beautifully cheery piano melody with an ode to a loved and lost pet. ‘High Horse’ is more classic Daniel Dale – two and a half minutes of trademark bittersweetness which finely amalgamates a catchy tune, religious imagery, unrequited love and death (“what they say at the funeral is often said in remorse”). Into the deal we also get a power pop re-recording of the song which may well have invented ant-folkster Jeffrey Lewis – 1982’s ‘I Had Lost My Mind’.
Despite knowing that this is likely to be the Beatles-esque sound that he’s been aspiring toward for most of his career, it’s one which is slightly disappointing in its sleekness. However, it really is very difficult to complain much when Johnston sounds as though he’s having the time of his life (even if his joyful vocal vaguely confutes his lyrical grief). It’s unlikely that he’ll be trading in his slide guitar for his tatty old boombox anytime soon, but that probably doesn’t matter so much as long as he holds on to his hands, lungs and ears.