archive review originally posted on the losing today site c. 2002/3 ….
So how do you judge a genius. Discuss?
When considering a worthy pretender to such a honoured title would the name Daniel Johnston spring to mind. Discuss?
It’s a moot point sure enough, but if plaudits translated into sales then Johnston would surely be the richest and most successful artist of our generation. What is it about Johnston that evokes such passion from artists such as Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth and David Bowie to name but three. What is it about him that has critics slavering and the majority of the record buying public totally indifferent?
One thing that is certain is that Johnston is something of an enigma. To many he is an influence, a remarkable and unique individual, yet in his own sheltered life his job at the local fast food store pays the bills, he spends his free time doodling Marvel comic characters and writing odes to a love that can never be. Is the thing that we equate with his portrayal of an underdog, do we empathise with his tragedy and his naive misguided attitude and view of life. Whatever it may be, no one can question the fragile exquisiteness that his work aspires to.
‘Fear yourself’ quickly follows on the tail of his work with the Hyperjink Tricycle to provide some of his most accomplished work of his career. There’s a point on ‘Fear yourself’ as early as the opening track ‘Now’ which begins with a lo-fi effect that has been Johnston’s chosen recorded medium since the year dot that transforms midway through into a full blossomed / bodied composition. It’s as if colour has been added to something previously monochrome. And maybe that’s the point that’s being made here, ‘Fear Yourself’ has been touted by many as Johnston’s crossover album, the album where the underground cult artist get to move up a league and slug it out with the big boys. The signs have been there for all to see, the aforementioned single and album as part of the Hyperjink Tricycle and the stunning single on Pickled Egg records last year with Slow Death proved that Johnston’s compositions were more than able to hold their heads among the elite, all that was needed was a kindred soul to direct the assault. Enter Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous who admirably adds the flesh to Johnston’s etchy frameworks. Both the A and B side of the excellent recent single ‘Mountain Top / Living it for the moment’ released on For Us records are included on this 12 track long player, the former track already vying for one of the spots as single of the year.
‘Fear Yourself’ still has Johnston obsessed with the usual haunts, long lost loves from beyond the grave and UFO’s. Melancholic twists are the order of the day, here you’ll find a remoteness that you’d have to go back to Nick Drake and Tim Buckley to find a comparable example, Johnston’s vocals bearing a remarkable likeness to Robert Wyatt. Lyrically an acquired taste dipping between child like surrealism (‘Love enchanted’), melancholism and the supernatural (‘Love not dead’). Linkous for his part makes an accomplished job of marrying Johnston’s minimalism and lonesome wanderings and giving it depth, body and life yet there are times when you feel that even Linkous can’t breach the gap between reality and the world existing inside Johnston’s psyche. Despite its surface cohesion, ‘Fear Yourself’ still dispatches an air of disorganisation and frailty but is lifted by some purified rock out moments. ‘Fish’ probably the albums highlight sees Johnston playing to the rules of the rock book, possessing the kind of melodic spin that you envisage with the right kind of awkward video could have MTV eating from the palm of his hand. ‘Must’ with its galloping piano chords decorates a haunting backdrop for Johnston’s love sick rhyming couplets to work upon. ‘You hurt me’ on the other hand has you imagining a sombre Gilbert O’Sullivan plying his trade while ‘Power of Love’, thankfully neither the Frankie or Jennifer Warnes versions, sweetly dips between the macabre and the graceful. On ‘Love not dead’ we get the chance to witness Daniel ripping it up in true Ramones vs. Blondie fashion taking no prisoners as he rattles at breakneck speed to the finish.
‘Fear yourself’ stakes its claim as the best Johnston album to date whether it enables him to challenge bigger markets is purely up to you the consumer but remember this here stands a truly fragile and flawed genius of our time, embrace lovingly.