Sunday, 15 June 2008



I knew this record before I had even heard it.  Everyone knew this record before they had heard it.  Indeed I would bet that the majority of people aware of this record have never actually listened to it at all.

For longest time I would begin my emails with “Hi, how are you?”  This was not me inspired by or copying Daniel Johnston, this was me replicated Kurt Cobain and his t-shirt of a simple frog that asked the question.  I didn’t know it was an album cover, for me it just embodied a certain naive simplification of the world that came with alternative rock and the grunge era.

Subtitled “The Unfinished Album” this is Johnston’s sixth album, which originally arrived in the form of a self-released cassette.  And to an untrained ear it is something of a mess, much like most of his early output.  It is juvenile and scatological but there is also a drive and a charm that seeps through and causes the listener to pay deeper attention to the work.

Johnston is an artist you can either approach whimsically or literally.  And for the sake of time today I will listen in the latter.

This record was made when he was 22 years old.  And it shows.  His balls do not appear to have dropped as his energy levels are at a painful high, you can’t help but imagine he would have been a nightmare to be around.

It begins with a dark lullaby of self pity in “Poor You” before “Big Business Monkey” arrives sounding like a Ween song being played on a cardboard box.

The much covered and celebrated “Walking The Cow” keeps things running on course with relentless further and confused remorse.

You can see why Matt Groening likes Johnston as there is a real rubberband reality attached to proceedings, right down to the twanging sound made by cheap instruments employed.  The distinct fine line between immaturity and self loathing continues with “I Am A Baby (In My Universe)” as he continues to work within his own world, his own mental Springfield.

A quick succession of tracks less than thirty seconds long suggest life more as rehearsal than the functioning real deal as Johnston works very on the “saw what you see” methodology of composition.

The angst is all in the song titles quite frankly: “I Am A Baby” comes followed naturally by “Nervous Love” before the sad resulting resignation of “I’ll Never Marry” is then accompanied by the nagging message “Get Yourself Together”.

The quality improves as the record goes on and with “Desperate Man Blues” and “Keep Punching Joe” Johnston turns miniscule lo-fi crooner as he sings along to Johnny Dankworth records in a very effective fashion (complete with full on self introduction on the latter).  Not that the creativity offered improves the tone or mindset of the piece.  Indeed “Keeping Punching Joe” is quite aggressive.

“Hey Joe” here is not a Hendrix cover; indeed it is almost a strange take on “Hey Jude”, albeit one sung with tears.

Continuing the chemistry and experimentation “She Call Pest Control” offers a weird kind of Beat poetry that sounds straight out of some San Francisco coffee house in the fifties, a broken kind of Ginsberg.

It all ends with “No More Pushing Joe Around” which sounds like a defensive playground rap seemingly delivered by a person that has just learned how to stand up for themselves (“he’s up and punching now”).  Then we get a weird outro and its done.  What cost?

There is a cliché statement attached to teenage angst/depression that goes “it gets better” and it’s a comment that also serves Johnston’s music output well.  Approach with caution and fascination only.

An unhappy accident.

Thesaurus moment: mar.

No comments: