Do a Google Image search for Kurt Cobain and it’s more than likely you’ll find a photograph of the Nirvana front man wearing a particular t-shirt. It’s a white t-shirt with a cute drawing of a frog, with the words ‘Hi How Are You’ written across the top. It advertises an album by Daniel Johnston. For a while, that shirt was more famous than the man himself.
Looking at Johnston’s life, it’s obvious why Cobain shared an affinity with him. Brought up as a strict fundamentalist Christian, Johnston rejected his religious upbringing in his teenage years but retained a fascination with the Devil and other religious imagery. Johnston has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and suffered several mental breakdowns, but has remained incredibly prolific over the years. Recording at least 25 albums since 1981, he’s collaborated with a who’s who of his country’s finest indie bands, from Yo La Tengo to Okkervil River.
Welcome To My World is designed as an introduction for those who have heard about the legend of Daniel Johnston but have yet to hear his music. There are 21 tracks here, taken almost exclusively from his recordings in the ’80s (sadly, due to Johnston’s health problems, the ’90s were not a prolific time for him), and range from early recordings recorded alone in a basement to the more professional, polished sound of the 1990 album.
The uninitiated should be warned – Johnston is not easy to listen to. Some of the songs here are touched by genius, for sure, yet there’s an awful lot too that’s just plain unlistenable. Not in a raw, ‘hear the artist’s pain way’ (although that applies as well), but just plain horribly sung, written and composed.
Let’s concentrate on the good points first though. Johnston’s illness inevitably influences nearly every track here and, at his best, he’s impossibly moving. Peek A Boo, despite sounding like it was recorded underwater, is frail, fragile and compelling. Just to hear Johnston strain for the notes on the chorus of “please hear my cry for help and save me from myself” is at once touching and disturbing.
Those early recordings have a ramshackle charm about them, featuring as they do just Johnston and a chord organ, his hand bashing away on the top of the instrument to create percussion. Often you can hear Johnston reaching over and switching the cassette tape off at the end of the song, and the hiss of the tape is present throughout. When it works, as on Walking The Cow or Man Obsessed, it works brilliantly. At other times, such as Casper The Friendly Ghost and Chord Organ Blues, the amateur sound tends to grate.
Johnston’s voice is unlikely to please every ear. An unerringly high falsetto, at times he can sound impossibly moving and frail (as on Some Things Last A Long Time – a noted influence on Mercury Rev). At other times, such as Never Relaxed, it just sounds plain annoying. Although the early, basement recordings do have a charm about them, the later tracks that benefit from a producer’s sprinkling of magic prove to be light relief.
Yet take, for example, True Love Will Find You In The End. It’s probably Johnston’s most famous song, thanks to the numerous covers it’s inspired, and weighs in at under two minutes. It’s simply Johnston and an acoustic guitar – beautiful, heartfelt and sincere, and Johnston for once doesn’t sound like a schoolboy struggling to hit the high notes. Anyone seeking to find out just what all the fuss is about would be well advised to listen to this track.
More quirky highlights include Laurie, with its almost country-ish sway, and the singalong Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances, although the latter does have one of Johnston’s more, shall we say, idiosyncratic vocal performances.
So if Daniel Johnston to you is just some bloke on a t-shirt, this is where to find the man behind the image. Johnston’s illness has led some people to lay superlative praise on him, describing him as a genius, while others have argued that this does him a disservice, as he’s simply a pretty decent singer/songwriter. The truth, as Welcome To My World demonstrates, is that he’s probably somewhere in between.