The Late Great Daniel Johnston Discovered Covered
History will prove you poor enlightened blue-staters right someday, but that's cold comfort now, when Christian nutjobs and reckless neocons have hijacked your country. Instead of flouncing off to Canada, heed the wisdom of Daniel Johnston: "Do yourself a favor, become your own savior/Don't let the sun go down on your grievience [sic]."
Johnston's life story and body of work speak to the restorative power of hope for the hopeless. A 43-year-old man with chronic manic depression, he lives with his elderly parents in Waller, Texas. For the past quarter-century, he's written hundreds of songs, songs as weird and wonderful as they are clumsily executed, songs that plumb the darkest caverns of the soul and suffuse them with sunlight. Although his illness has caused him to be hospitalized and incarcerated, he's persevered, spreading his gospel of love by any means available. In the beginning, he passed out handmade, home-recorded cassettes to strangers on the streets; over the past decade or so, he's become a minor cult figure, accumulating disciples determined to prove that he's more than some freak-show novelty act.
The Late Great Daniel Johnston Discovered Covered marks the latest campaign to bring Johnston's idiosyncratic genius to a wider audience. The first disc of this double-CD set offers covers of 18 Johnston compositions by such underground luminaries as Sparklehorse, the Flaming Lips, Clem Snide, Mercury Rev, Tom Waits, and Beck; the second disc contains the original versions, plus a new track from Johnston's forthcoming album Lost and Found. If you're not acquainted with Johnston's work, listen to disc 2 first. The recordings are impossibly affecting, despite such superficial deficiencies as out-of-tune instruments, crappy boombox microphones, a toy organ that seems to be gasping out its final death rattle, and Johnston's often-precarious grasp of pitch and rhythm. His Charlie Brown bleat lists and stumbles and somehow rights itself, the saddest, sweetest, bravest sound in the solar system. Whether he's singing about caged monkeys, vampires, cows, King Kong, or the unjust treatment of artists by the bourgeoisie, his one great subject is love. Maybe it's unrequited, maybe it's impossible, but love prevails. "Hold me like a mother would, like I always knew somebody should," he pleads on "Living Life," right before he lands the knockout punch: "although tomorrow, it don't look that good."
Once you've figured out why a tribute is in order, move on to the first disc. Although most of the participants augment the original arrangements somewhat, all but a few retain Johnston's special charm. The less-successful covers are generally the fussier ones: T.V. on the Radio strips "Walking the Cow" of its gentle absurdism, upping the riffage to create a plodding, glammed-out spookfest, all distortion and scenester 'tude. The Rabbit and Thistle LLC impart a brittle, new-wave sheen that detracts from the message of their respective renditions, and Death Cab for Cutie goes overboard with elaborate atmospherics. But at least a handful of the tracks are revelations: Vic Chesnutt brings out the soul in "Like a Monkey in a Zoo" without undercutting the pathos; Beck's "True Love Will Find You in the End" tames Johnston's frantic optimism, resulting in a stately, immoderately lovely country-folk hymn; Sparklehorse and the Flaming Lips prove that "Go" deserves a place in the pantheon of great Brian Wilson songs not written by Brian Wilson. "Any one of us would sell our mothers to write a song as good as one of Daniel's," Mark Oliver Everett of Eels confesses in the liner notes, and Discovered Covered proves it's not just idle flattery. Do yourself a favor, become your own savior, and let Daniel Johnston console you in your hour of darkness.