The Late Great Daniel Johnston

I refuse to relinquish this relationship to Paula Abdul. Our love thus far has been defined by great songs and exemplary artists. At the onset we were swooning to the swelling hush of “New Slang.” With the all the giddy joy of new love came “Such Great Heights.” And as our love matured into something even more fulfilling there was Iron and Wine’s cover of that same song. We were scoring Garden State back when Zach Braff was still in his nurses uniform. So now that our relationship has come to its regrettable and unwelcome end I just cannot allow some washed-up pop star to lay claim to our break-up.

Yet she is inescapable. I go to the gym to try and get my mind off things and there she is with “Forever Your Girl.” Suddenly the song resonates with a deeper emotional impact than it ever had a right to.

Wasn’t it just a month ago we were still planning out our future together? What happened to the security of knowing you were indeed forever my girl?

I keep going to the gym more often just to stay busy but I’m also too sick too eat most days. So I’m loosing wait and need to get new jeans. There in the department store changing room is Paula waiting to wound me with “Opposites Attract.”

Isn’t that what we always said about each other? Wasn’t it my gravity that balanced out your levity? Didn’t my steadfastness temper your capriciousness? When did those differences start to tear us apart?

I cannot abide by this. I will not let that bitch Paula lay claim to this experience. I need empathetic compassion. I need large hearted sincerity. I need The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered.

Divided between one disc of Daniel Johnston covers by prominent indie artists and a companion disc that showcases the original versions by Daniel himself, the two disc set is the finest showcase for Johnston’s work that has ever seen commercial release. It is also the first comforting experience I’ve had with music in this whole painful process.

Already familiar with his work, I was drawn to the collection by both the hunger for more of Daniel’s idiosyncratically passionate songwriting and my curiosity about how other artists would handle those same songs. Upon my very first listen both of these impulses were more than gratified.

Daniel is a peerless songwriter whose songs are so stark and honest that they teeter on the edge of hilarity and embarrassment. Yet the guy is just so damned heartfelt that his work is instantaneously arresting. His words may look trite on paper and his sound may be rough by nature, but his delivery uplifts the both of them well beyond their limitations. It is this impact, coupled with a rudimentary understanding of his struggles with mental illness that make his work so inspiring. Even at their most heartbreaking, his songs simultaneously proclaim a boundless optimism.

Nearly all the cover artists successfully capture these feelings of hope, joy, and despair. The exceptions are few: newcomers The Rabbit reduce “Good Morning You” to bland, formulaic alterna-rock circa 1995 while The Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano lets his ego run rampant over “Impossible Love” for two entirely unnecessary minutes beyond the original length. Yet even these missteps are easily overlooked within the context of such strong interpretations by the likes of Jad Fair, TV On The Radio, and Vic Chesnutt.

The approaches vary. Calvin Johnston and Beck manage to capture the intimacy of Daniel’s unaccompanied early work while The Starlight Mints and Mercury Rev transform the lo-fi hiss of those recording into spacey new-prog soundscapes. Although he holds onto it for a bit too long, Gano makes his choice of cover entirely his own and somehow Tom Waits manages to sound crazier than Daniel ever was with his broken beat-box hacking and guttural falsetto. Other highlights include Bright Eyes’ moving dust-bowl ballad arrangement for a previously accapella number and M Wards codeine covered version of “Story of An Artist.”

The selections from Daniel himself range from early self-recorded tracks that are barely audible over the rumble of the boom box that captured them to more intentionally rollicking or atmospheric pieces midwifed along by collaborators like Paul Leary of The Butthole Surfers and Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. The discrepancy in fidelity is severe, but Daniel’s directed emotiveness and ardently indelible melodies give his disc a cohesive identity.

Never so much about setting as sentiment, these songs provided the necessary touchstone for my tattered heart. All the pain, hope, and despair of these past few weeks is right here. The nightmares I keep having that she’s gone and the subsequent agony when I wake up and realize she really is are depicted in “Dream Scream.” The maddening futility with which I continue to love her is explored in “Impossible Love.” And when I finally do move on I’ll have “My Life Is Starting Over Again” to help me along the way.

There are even songs for her here too. In “Living Life” a verse bemoans “I can’t help being restless, when everything’s so tasteless, and all the colors seem to have faded away.”

I know, babe. And I’m so sorry I let that happen to us.

There’s still so much I regret and so much more I wish I could change. I may never get her back and even if I do it may never be the same. But I’ll sleep a little more soundly tonight knowing I’ve preserved the indie rock credibility of this relationship, even unto the awful and untimely end.

Death Cab For Cutie play "Dream Scream"

Daniel Johnston plays "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievience"

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