Daniel Johnston – Is and Always Was

January 01, 1970

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Johnston’s songs have always been an interesting mix of Beatle-pop brilliance
and unsettling instability, bits of very accomplished melody peeping out
between bouts of piano banging, child-like lyrics, stalker narratives and
barely contained psychosis. For me, it took 2004’s Discovered Uncovered to uncover
the skill under Johnston’s
art. Only after listening to his songs filtered through more conventional pop
voices could I go back and hear the genius in the originals.


that’s me; you’re probably much smarter. You probably don’t need Jason Falkner,
musician, producer and detail man extraordinaire, to clean up Daniel Johnston’s
latest batch for you.


you might want him anyway, because if Johnston
is the mad genius throwing tunes everywhere, Falkner is just the guy to pick
them up and set them in order. He is steeped in the same psychedelic pop
tradition as Johnston,
though in a far more disciplined, knob-twiddling, studio-aware way. His Author Unknown was one of the 1990s best
(and least appreciated) pop albums, every detail razor sharp, planned to the
nth degree, and yet as fluid and inevitable as melodic pop can be. His work
with Brendan Benson (One Mississippi and Lapalco) had the same lapidary
yet living quality, its art preserved in 1960s amber, yet nonetheless able to
swim around and even do the occasional backflip. And his under-the-radar Bedtime With The Beatles, a two-volume
series of instrumental lullaby interpretations of the Fab Four, has an
understated charm for parents and toddlers alike.


 Falkner brings out the Beatle in Johnston, structuring his songs, adding fillips of guitar
and keyboard (even slipping a lick from “You Say It’s Your Birthday” into “Fake
Records of Rock and Roll”), all without in the least distracting from Johnston’s unfiltered
urgency. Our hero is still entangled with unattainable females (“Mind Movies”
“Without You”), still endearingly child-like (“Queenie the Dog”), still
demonstrably eccentric (“I Had Lost My Mind”). “I’m just a psycho trying to
write a song, Johnston
sings in “Mind Movies,” and, yes, he is still fundamentally a little off. He
just sounds so much better, channeled through regular, full-arrangements, with
the reassuring symmetry of good pop. Arrangements are never overwhelming, but
often include small doses of lots of different textures.  The single “Freedom,” for instance, is mostly
strummed guitar and vocals. Yet it’s filled out beautifully with drums, bass, a
little slide, some keyboard and call and response vocals.


the record were going to tip over into excess, it would do so during the final cut,
“Light of Day,” an extended, mildly hallucinatory track, that builds gradually
via blossoming synths, slow piano chords and fuzzy guitar tones, into a “Day in
the Life” overload. It could tip, but it doesn’t, it just grows and grows until
it is too big to go on anymore. Then it ends. Everyone stays on board, in key,
in control for six and a half minutes. Amazing.


bottom line:  this is the most
accessible, least squirm inducing Daniel Johnston record ever. That will
undoubtedly be a problem for the folks who turn up primarily for the peep show,
but if you come for the music, listen up. Jason Falkner has run Daniel
Johnston’s vision through a focus lens. The subject matter is still pretty odd,
but you can see it better than ever.


Standout Tracks: “Freedom”, “Light of Day”



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