There’s a very simple reason why Daniel Johnston is not a household name: he’s not accessible. Certainly some will furiously debate that statement, calling into question what is “accessible” in the realm of such a subjective medium. But let’s not demonize the term, for there’s nothing wrong with not adhering to its specifications. If we can agree that while Johnston is a gifted, underappreciated songwriter, we can also agree that one must wade through an overwhelmingly lo-fi aesthetic to reach that gift (specifically, obstructions like tape hiss and a voice that, while wounded and fragile, is also very polarizing). Some call Johnston the “godfather of lo-fi”; yet to him, lo-fi has always been a necessity, not a choice.
Johnston achieved some notoriety on indie rock’s fringes the old fashioned way, well before technology and information overload swallowed up our daily lives. In the ’80s, he recorded his music on a boombox, duped cassette copies (with pasted-on original artwork), and sold them to people on the streets of Austin. It seems that every musician who now heralds Johnston’s songs can recall the serendipitous moment one of those homemade cassettes landed in their lap. Some delve into the dark, tabloid aspects of Johnston’s life: the medications he takes, the mental institutions he’s frequented, the Freudian interpretations of his R. Crumb-y artwork. There seems to be some sort of apologetic agenda to bringing up such personal matters, as if they excuse the songs’ shoddy production values and childlike, craggy vocals.
But none of this should really matter, because a good Johnston song is simply good, no strings attached. Untainted by fame or fortune, Johnston is (as many of his supporters put it) the purest of songwriters: a man who ultimately makes music for himself, and if others hear it, that’s just grand. Johnston’s songs are the kind you listen to alone; their impact is only levied in isolation from all things. Personally, I find Johnston to be far more hit-and-miss than many choose to admit. Still, his best songs (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievience”, “Life in Vain”, “The Sun Shines Down on Me”) are startlingly point-blank and filled with disarming doses of redemption and hope.
The artists who pay tribute to Johnston on the new The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Uncovered (no, Johnston is not deceased, that’s him staring at his own grave on the cover) do so not only out of reverence, but in hopes that he’ll receive a well-deserved spike in recognition. Unfortunately, a large majority of the covers here fail by inadvertently showing how a Johnston original succeeds. A great Johnston song uses (intentionally or not) its ragged, amateur sound and performance to its benefit, completely catching the listener emotionally off-guard. By taking the song out of its decayed context, and sprucing up the production and arrangement, it simply cannot render the same impact. So while Discovered Uncovered boasts performances from Teenage Fanclub with Jad Fair (“My Life is Starting Over Again”), TV on the Radio (“Walking the Cow”), Bright Eyes (“Devil Town”), and Death Cab for Cutie (“Dream Scream”), they mostly turn in renditions that are sterile, overcooked, or just plain average.
There are some exceptions. Eels contribute an entirely lived-in version of “Living Life”, which excavates the brilliant song beneath Johnston’s disheveled exterior. They actually make it sound like their own song, validating its classic status. Sparklehorse and the Flaming Lips turn “Go” into a weightless, sedated tune with the help of some ethereal synthesizers and glockenspiel. Beck puts on his Hank Williams hat for a steadfast reading of “True Love Will Find You in the End”, Vic Chestnutt captures the lonely detachment of “Like a Monkey in the Zoo”, and Tom Waits builds “King Kong” into a savage grunt (a song that sounds like it was explicitly written for him in the first place). But these highlights are few and far between, not nearly enough to recommend the album entire. (It’s worth noting that Discovered Covered does come with a second disc containing all of Johnston’s original versions of the chosen covers; if you are curious about Johnston, it’s as good a place to start as any.)
Finally, if Discovered Uncovered doesn’t necessarily offer new glimpses in Johnston’s songs, it does make a few things clear. Whether he approves of it or not, Johnston is the elected champion of the unknown, the neglected yet respected, a representative for every hermetic songwriter crafting never-heard classics in his basement. And while it’s debatable as to whether or not Johnston is the misunderstood genius that many claim him to be, it’s fair to say that he’ll never see the kind of renown that favors the artists on this tribute.