Welcome To My World – Daniel Johnston
Eternal Yip Eye Music/High Wire Music
With their deep analog compression and warbling, distant pianos, Daniel Johnston's early recordings — made in Texas and West Virginia in the 1980s — communicate the same technological immediacy as collectors' cherished pre-War folk and blues 78s. But they come from a very different pre-War South; one where, through some glitch in the space-time continuum, a whole generation of musicians (of which Johnston is the only recorded exemplar) became raving Beatlemaniacs. Daniel Johnston — it can be fairly said — just wasn't made for these (those?) times.
A listener without knowledge of Johnston's explosively bizarre back story might wonder how — upon listening to Welcome To My World, a new anthology of Johnston’s work — Johnston could possibly sound like a helium-voiced 12-year old for the duration of his 20-year career. That back story, told in Jeff Feuerzeig’s excellent new film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston has propelled Johnston, from his earliest manic appearances on MTV to the major label bidding war that ensued while he was in a mental institution. (He, uh, crashed his father’s private plane into some trees after wrestling the controls from his father when his father was possessed by, um, Casper the Friendly Ghost.)
And the music? It's really good, just incredibly creative and heartfelt. On "I'm Nervous," a Vaudeville melody ascends, the voice breaking pubescently. "I'm nervous, and I'm sad. I'm sorry, and I'm mad," it sings, so rawly that it seems like it must be real, he must mean it. Johnston’s voice is like that. It’s a hell of a hook, really. On "Walking the Cow," a truly nuanced vocal rests atop an organ part bursting with clever counterpoint. On "Lennon Song," Johnston does a one-man Beatles, with a Fab-worthy bundle of hooks crammed atop a too-fast piano plod.
Daniel Johnston is genuinely crazy, but he is also an incredibly canny musician and showman. At the triumphant South By Southwest performance that preceded the aforementioned plane crash, Johnston deliberately went off his medications, knowing it would make for a better show. What a character. Literally. This accepted, the pleasures of Welcome To My World, which focuses on Johnston’s homemade work, are vast, and a good introduction to Johnston’s idiosyncratic output.
It is also the type of music where, should a roommate/significant other/parent suddenly walk in on the listener, it is best to have a prepared answer to the almost inevitable question: "seriously, what the fuck wrong with this dude?" The paradox is that there is no answer that will satisfy anybody so moved to ask, and that most anyone who might dig Johnston's music would at least listen curiously first before phrasing the question more politely. Welcome To My World is for them, too.