No discussion of Daniel Johnston’s music seems to be complete without liberal use of the terms “lo-fi,” “outsider artist,” or “mental illness.” Then there’s always the mention of his “sincerity.” Some would argue that an awareness of Johnston’s struggles with mental illness is essential to appreciate his sincerity, but I’d have to disagree. I’ve never been one to pick at biographical details of one’s life to see if it made art more interesting. The best art needs no background, no sordid details of a tragic life, though having one can do wonders for marketing purposes.
The first time I fell in love with one of Johnston’s songs was when I heard “Speeding Motorcycle.” But what I heard was Yo La Tengo’s cover version; I had no idea it was one of Johnston’s songs until nearly a decade later. I was unaware that the person who wrote it was mentally ill, that he had recorded the first version in his bedroom playing primarily chord organ (a keyboard most often sold as a toy) on a cheap boom box, or that he’d originally passed the cassette tapes out for free in the streets of Austin in the early 1980s while working at a McDonald’s. I simply loved the song because it was brilliant.
I was awed by the song’s profound simplicity, the earnest lyrics that seemed written from the perspective of a child, and the plain catchiness of it all. I couldn’t get that chorus out of my head for hours. Slowly upbeat, the song’s cyclical structure pulled me in, and its innocent lyrics—“speeding motorcycle of my heart,” “speeding motorcycle won’t you change me”—were irresistibly charming. If the lines had been just a bit cuter the song would have seemed trite, annoying, and utterly wrong. Instead, “Speeding Motorcycle” is a genuine pop classic, with all the elements hewn together just right. And like a child who often senses morbidity just beneath the rainbows and unicorns, Johnston frequently mentions death, as in “Speeding motorcycle, let’s speed smart / ’Cause we don’t want to wreck, but we can do a lot of tricks / We don’t have to break our necks to get our kicks.”
To accept the sincerity of “Speeding Motorcycle,” I didn’t need to know that Daniel Johnston had crashed a plane, assaulted his one-time manager, or drawn Jesus fishes all over the Statue of Liberty during a visit to New York. And I didn’t need to know that Johnston first recorded the song on a dinky tape player with cheap instruments. I also didn’t need to decide whether Johnston could properly be called an outsider artist—which many argue he can’t be, convenient as it may be as a label. An “outsider” is generally defined as someone whose art sprung far from the cultural canon or any artistic schooling, but Johnston was steeped in popular music from an early age, admiring Queen and idolizing the Beatles. He also studied visual art in college, and was obsessed with cartoonist Jack Kirby.
When I did finally hear Johnston’s original recording of “Speeding Motorcycle” and the rest of his 1983 album Yip/Jump Music, I was astounded by the record, which contained numerous other moments of brilliance (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost”), as well as some utter monotonous mush (the jarring “Danny Don’t Rapp”). In addition to the sincerity and simple brilliance that I detected immediately in the Yo La Tengo cover of “Speeding Motorcycle,” listening to the entire Johnston album, duds and all, served as a document of an original American landscape that I’d never heard before.
In October, Johnston released Is and Always Was, his first album in six years. With Jason Falkner (who has worked with Beck and Paul McCartney) producing, there’s no possibility of a “lo-fi” label here, yet the sincerity remains. Opener “Mind Movies” unfolds with Johnston’s trademark cyclical catchiness. On the jangly “High Horse,” he earnestly sings lines like “Say hello at my funeral / I’ll be right there, of course;” and “Looking down from your high horse / Like I didn’t matter, of course.” The familiar themes of lost love, death, and joy all reappear, all in Johnston’s familiar adolescent phrasings. Though the production couldn’t be more different from the cheap-boom-box-and-toy-organ sound that some longtime fans may feel attached to, the key elements of Johnston’s songs remain unchanged.
Still, though the slick studio sound might not make Johnston’s songs any less sincere, I do find Is and Always Was less compelling than his early work. While I consider Yip/Jump Music an important contribution to American music, Is and Always Was seems like a sanitized, watered-down Johnston—enjoyable, and no less authentic, but not nearly as interesting. Although the songs are catchy and brimming with hooks, there are no instant classics like “Speeding Motorcycle” or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances.” Although I didn’t need to know the context of the recording for Yip/Jump Music, the context needed to be there, seeping its way into each chord progression, each earnestly sung chorus, coating the music with a clingy residue that made it not only sincere, but also timeless.