Daniel Johnston
Rejected Unknown
(Which? Records)

DANIEL IS NOT a happy man. This is not a happy album. Maybe that's good. For 15 years now, tormented Austin poet Daniel Johnston has held out hope that his true love Laurie may finally come back to him. On songs like the bleak "Impossible Love," suicidal "Funeral Girl," and painfully sad "I Lose," it seems that finally he might be admitting the dream is never going to come true. Perhaps now Daniel can pick up the pieces of his fragmented life and move on. I hope so.

This album is so desperately bleak (it's his first since his ill-fated excursion on Atlantic, 1994's Fun), it makes for almost impossible listening, despite its vivid flashes of beauty. Often I have said that hearing Daniel's music makes me feel voyeuristic. Rarely has that been truer than here, despite the accomplished, sensitive backing from musicians like the Dead Milkmen's Brian Beattie. They can make his songs sound complete, rounded-out, and grown-up--but they could never do the same for Daniel himself.

He lives in a world bounded by Beatles albums and solitary piano excursions; and there's little else happening. It's wonderful indeed to hear this record when it becomes buoyant--on songs like the soulful, searing "Wedding Ring Bells Blues" and "Love Forever," it's possible to smile and listen to Daniel. He always did have an intuitive grasp of great pop. That is, until he starts adding the coda "Our love is dead" and following upbeat blues with tracks where he nearly doesn't bother singing, straining his voice like he first heard Lennon do with the Plastic Ono Band.

The music is usually blues-based--lumpen, leaden, heavy, light-fingered, always giving Daniel space to fully express his tortured visions. Everything about this record disturbs me, from the cover drawing of a girl with a skull face to the headless, armless torsos to the absolutely wonderful "Favorite Darling Girl," a song that should be number one in anyone's heart. I cannot live with it. I cannot leave it behind. Daniel, please take care of yourself and your friends.