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Monday, November 20, 2017 
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Daniel Johnston
recording
The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered
Gammon
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I wasn't going to review this two-CD Daniel Johnston set. It's relatively dated (it was officially released sometime last fall), and one half of it is a tribute compilation, and I've never been a big fan of tribute compilations. If they're good enough to merit a tribute, why not just listen to the originals? And that's all I've done lately, is listen to Johnston's originals, those sad and sloppy and somehow overwhelmingly moving songs.

But I didn't feel much like reviewing them last fall — I guess they just didn't feel as relevant to me then. But now that I feel all broken and sick inside, they're so relevant I probably shouldn't even listen. I should probably be listening to something upbeat and rockin', but instead I sulk in Johnston's messed-up disaster of a life, nodding along with understanding, then selfishly consoling myself by thinking: At least I don't have it that bad.

Something about feeling sad makes you want to listen to sad music, if only to remind yourself you're not alone. But Johnston's songs are not sad in the way most sad songs are sad. They're not sweeping and beautfiul and touching and graceful; they're an unorganized mess, kinda like most of us. But his ability to expose his soul in all its ugly nakedness and heartbroken torment is his blessing and his curse, and the results are powerful.

While there's talk of devastation and suicide, there are also inspiring moments. You can tell Johnston, a manic depressive, has moments of hope; it's difficult to decipher, based on the consequences, whether that's a good or bad thing, because, in a way, it makes you feel more sorry for him. In these moments of optimism and hope, it sounds as if he's giving the listener advice, but you know it's he who most needs it. And making music is precisely how he gets it — music is his crutch and, ultimately, his therapy. "Sometimes you might want to give up/ But keep that chin up/ 'Cause you're gonna find, you're gonna find...," Johnston's voice cracks as he trails off on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievience," never telling us what we're going to find because he doesn't know. He only believes — at least he has hope.

All of Johnston's songs are about himself, but sometimes you want them to be about you. "My life is starting over again," he spit-sings on the rollicking opener of the same name. And while he blames himself for all his suffering and pain and fusses over having nowhere left to hide (but supposes it's better than suicide), he repeats the chorus line again and again as if the chanting is the only thing preventing his own meltdown. And so many times listening to this song seemed like it was the only thing that kept me from breaking down, because it's so true — you do have to start over again and again in life. Like it or not, life changes and you have no choice but to adapt. And that adaptation can be a very difficult process.

Listening to "Impossible Love" is almost unbearable. And the song's not even that grave; it actually has a catchy beat and loveable structure. It's the words. It seems to always be the words with Johnston, so plain and devastatingly honest. "I have nothing to say/ And my mind's in decay/ And I'm all alone/ Thinking of days gone by," he laments, just before a riff rolls in like it's telling you everything is going to be OK and he shrugs and sighs: "My life just goes on/ And what have I become?" It seems to be this juxtaposition of playful hooks and lines that read like suicide notes that hurts the most, because the desire to live, to really feel alive, is so strong and so present in his music. As much as his suffering is, I suppose.

"This is life/ This is life and everything's all right/ Livin', livin', livin', livin' life," Johnston sings over barroom piano, sounding like he's struggling to convince himself. But sometimes when you tell yourself something enough, you start to believe it. Well, in manic highs, we try anyway.

But on "Sorry Entertainer" he's back to his downer ways. Next to the nagging, paranoid repetition of a raw guitar line, he sneers like the devil's on his side. "Drove those demons out of my head/ With an organ and a pencil full of lead... I'm a loner, I'm a sorry entertainer."

The most polished track here, relatively speaking, is the uplifting, hopeful "Love Not Dead." Featuring clean power-pop riffs, the song is about falling in love and how it makes you feel alive. "She said on the telephone she had wished me well/ I was alive with the spell/ Then as I hung up early/ I realized I've been dead for so long."

Led by a carnival-like organ and a sluggish groove, "Like a Monkey in a Zoo" suggests a few different reasons why he feels like a monkey in a zoo — mental illness, musical success or the fact that he still lives at home. "I sold my freedom for free room and board," he sings with an ache in his voice. "I don't have no friends/ Except all these people who want me to do tricks for them... I know it's my fault/ But I want out and when I cry out, no one seems to understand."

Almost sounding like a joke, closer "Rock This Town" is an all out dirty old classic rock 'n' roll song — and it feels awkward, the rockin' music juxtaposed against Johnston's quivering warble: "I love that marijuana, makes me feel so high, tell all your troubles goodbye." This attempt at sounding like a true rock 'n' roller, joking or not, is as sad as any other track on the record, if only because he continues to hope for something that's not there.

While the melancholy classical piano on "Story of an Artist" feels as dire as a funeral procession, it finds Johnston finally acknowledging himself as a true artist and discovering what's real and true and good in life; not what he has to hope for, but what just is. "They sit in front of their TV, saying, 'Hey, isn't this fun?'/ And they laugh at the artist, saying, 'He doesn't know how to have fun'/ The best things in life are truly free/ Singing birds and laughing bees/ You got me wrong says he/ The sun don't shine in your TV/ ...Others just like to watch the world."

Out of the hiss of lo-fi recording and the lisp of poor singing, Johnston's realness is so plain and so raw, it makes you want to cry. He never hid his feelings by complicating things unnecessarily. He pounded on his piano, strummed his guitar, sang simple lines like, "Why do you only do that only? Why are you so odd?" and, fortunately for all of us, hit record.


by Jenny Tatone




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