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Daniel Johnston - Welcome To My World

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Artist: Daniel Johnston

Album: Welcome To My World

Label: Eternal Yip

Review date: Jun. 26, 2006

Welcome To My World collects some of Daniel Johnston’s best work, most of it from the 1980s. It was released a month after the wonderful documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Johnston is often described as an outsider musician, but things get a bit thorny when one tries to pin down exactly why. (In the end, of course, genre labels don’t matter much, but I think the classification of Johnston as an “outsider” may say a lot about what listeners think about when they listen to his music.)

Johnston is a capable guitarist and pianist. He sings well, although his voice is thin and he doesn’t obsess about intonation. Structurally and chordally, his songs are mostly just average pop songs, sometimes a bit more repetitive. The main subjects of his songs – love, longing and insanity – are well-worn topics in rock music, and his treatment of them is often almost painfully clichéd (though this is not always the case, particularly when he addresses the last topic by singing about vampires and the devil).

So what is it? Well, his music, or at least his early music, is incredibly lo-fi, and it has always been somewhat sloppy. But those things are true of any number of “indie” artists who could never be described as “outsiders.”

What separates Johnston from most other indie musicians, finally, are his mental troubles, and the fact that many of his songs are unironic documents of those troubles. On “Peek A Boo,” the first track on Welcome To My World, he begs, “Please hear my cry / And save me from myself.” It’s not the most artful stuff, for sure, and that fact is sometimes exposed when his songs have more traditional arrangements, as on Johnston’s 1994 major-label debut, Fun (which isn’t represented here). His many early lo-fi songs in which he accompanies himself on chord organ (many of which are represented here) are bizarre and charming.

What really makes Johnston an outsider is the uncomfortable tension the listener experiences when trying to figure out if she likes his music and, if so, why she likes it. Johnston is singing about mental illness, and a lot of what might make his music enjoyable is the fact that he has actually experienced it. This is not to say that Johnston’s music wouldn’t offer anything to someone who doesn’t know anything about his personal life – on this CD, for example, “Some Things Last A Long Time” is sad and oddly compelling, and “Man Obsessed” and a couple others have loopy, logical pop hooks. But an awful lot of what’s touching about Johnston’s music has to do with his illness.

This doesn’t have to mean that his music is bad, or that most of his fans appreciate him in a circus-freak sort of way, but Johnston’s music puts listeners in an uncomfortable position. After all, as Johnston himself notes on “Peek A Boo,” “You can listen to these songs / have a good time and walk away / But for me, it’s not that easy / I have to live these songs forever.”

By Charlie Wilmoth

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