Never Heard of 'Em
Daniel Johnston: Songs of Pain
Anna Minard claims to "know nothing about music." For this column, we force her to listen to random records by artists considered to be important by music nerds.
Songs of Pain
The first song on Songs of Pain is "Grievances," a lo-fi recording of a man playing tinny but smooth piano and singing a sort of wacky folk ballad. He's got an interesting voice—really high, with a Southern accent and conversational delivery—and the song makes sense, mostly. "I saw you at the funeral/You were standing there like a temple/I said, 'Hi, how are you, hello'/And I pulled up the casket and crawled in." It's goofy and sweet and gets you excited about what's to come.
In the second track, things go a certain way: a retelling of the story of Christianity. Okay, sure. It starts to sound less carefully written, it gives you a prickle of a question in your head, but you have to hear it to understand why. "He never did bad to anyone/He never did no wrong" could work in tons of music, but something's different here. Who is this guy?
Track three is "Joy Without Pleasure." Again, the song is unabashedly great and just sounds like an old recording of a funny song. "The son of Charles Dickens and a little red hen/Danced the Watusi like it was a sin." He's loose and fun—you can listen to him sing "like it was a sin" over and over. At the end of the two-minute song, he announces into the microphone, "That song was about premarital sex."
Oh, okay. From here on out, you can tell all over the album that something is different about this person and this music than, say, a found recording of an old folk artist or the usual lo-fi indie artist. The religious and sexual overtones are constant. There are recordings of his mom yelling at him. His voice gets so yowly sometimes. There's something urgent about everything, and serious, and sad. ("Never relax, never relax, never relax" is the refrain in one song.)
Daniel Johnston and his life story got a lot of exposure in a documentary a few years ago called The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which made the fact that he has bipolar disorder a big part of his public identity. Kurt Cobain famously loved Daniel Johnston. And there's something about the way certain arms of wider culture tend to love unguarded, raw, talented outsidery people that makes me nervous. Like, is it an appreciation of the art or the story? Can they even be separated? Is there a condescension or disrespect that creeps in under any of that?
But there's no denying that this album is affecting and brilliant; it sucks you in. Lines like "There was a naked lady on TV/She had no care, she had no shame/She had little propellers on" are irreplaceable. Sometimes people want you to listen to something weird and just laugh. But you can't do that with this—it gets inside you.
I give this a "so try it, then" out of 10.