There may be just one bi-polar ex-MTV star, a tortured, musical genius who was subject of a Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary. A man who’s also found renown as an artist after a lifetime of struggling and whose art was recently turned in to an iPhone game, complete with a soundtrack featuring his own music. And he’s probably Daniel Johnston.
Johnston’s latest album Is And Always Was comes after three recent re-issues of previously recorded material. It’s better produced than his mostly self-recorded back catalogue, which may well be another sign of his increasing popularity and rise from fringe cult figure to bonafide rock legend. Opener Mind Movies eases fans and noobs alike in to the album. It’s familiar Johnston territory; a love song with dark, almost creepy lyrics coupled with a simple catchy tune; “I’m just a psycho trying to write a song / and talk is cheap I’m just a creep for your love.”
Fake Records Of Rock And Roll is more political, though nothing could be more personal to Johnston than integrity in art and music, having spent a lifetime battling his parents, his doctors, and his own demons to get his music on tape. The track is wrapped in a sweet rock ‘n’ roll tune, albeit topped with Johnston’s warbling voice. Continuing the old rock theme is Queenie The Doggie, which at first appears to be an irreverent, Buddy Holly pop song, but as is so often the case with Johnston it’s really a story of love and loss. You can hear his great inspiration The Beatles in here, as well as more contemporary artists like Eels in the mood and composition.
A highlight of the album is a full studio production version of his old song Had Lost My Mind. First self recorded in 1982, it became popularised with the release of the 2005 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston, which traced the artists rise from ’80s MTV star to his battle with bi-polar disorder and eventual resurgence as a star in the ’90s with fellow musician/fans like Kurt Cobain helping to build his public profile. The film featured the track with animation of Johnston’s own distinctive artwork. Here the track retains the same lo-fi qualities and raw songwriting that got Johnston noticed in the first place, but adds a more reflective note when sung by the older, more experienced Johnston.
Looking back to the past again, the penultimate track opens asking “Hi, how are you these days?” before continuing to basically tell the listener that no matter how you are, Johnston is probably worse. It’s a ceaseless cry for help with couplets like “I love you all but I hate myself / and there doesn’t seem to be anyone can help” and “and every thing has turned out bad / I’m so sad.” The final track on the song is a six and-a-half minute epic which goes some way to assuring you that everything will be alright. “Got me thinking life’s alright / In the middle of the night / I can see the light of day.”
Apart from The Late Great Daniel Johnston album (which helped expose Johnston to a wider audience with musicians such as Beck, Tom Waits, The Flaming Lips and Death Cab For Cutie all contributing covers), Is And Always Was may be the most accessible album for new fans who otherwise may baulk at the lo-fi production of earlier efforts like Hi, How Are You. It’s classic Johnston with all of his quirks and genius on display and a great gateway in to an extensive and infinitely strange world of heartbreak, insanity, despair, and joy.