Daniel Johnston

Fear Yourself

/gammon; 2003/




more info:

(if you just want to read the review, go where there is this sign §§)

I invited Angus Anderson to spend the evening drinking beers and white Russians, listening to Malkmus, Sparklehorse, etc., watching Pavement’s dvd and making our final ‘footballer endowed with moustaches top 5’. He came with his high-school pimpled daughter who dresses like her female idol, Avril Lavigne (I call her Avril by the way because her true name is horrid). She likes me because I disapprove of Angus listening to Slipknot. Anyway, when I saw her I knew right from the start that she would be a pain in the ass until she falls asleep but I’ve forgotten that high-school girls like to stay up late. I wonder why Angus hasn’t sent her to a teenage sleepover somewhere. He’s been fighting over the custody of the girl for the last 3 years and now that he has just managed to argue with her every second week, she forbids him to pick her after high-school because she’s ashamed of him… In fact, she’s afraid that her gothic (in a Marilyn Manson kind of way) friend fall in love with him. You can’t fool her, she saw American Beauty twice…

Anyway, she prevented us from listening to the music silently looking at each other with a knowing smile indicative of our mutual taste. She kept talking. I first played Daniel Johnston’s new album. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation between the three of us:

Avril (scrutinizing the sleeve): aaargh !! He’s ugly, fat and I’m pretty sure he sweats all the time.

Angus: That’s not the point darling, listen to the music.

Avril: I don’t listen to people’s music when they’re fat and ugly.

Igor: You mean people ought to be good-looking, attractive for you to listen to their music?

Avril: yeah, sure.

Igor : But you listen to Placebo, right ?

Avril: Yeah but they are sexy…

Igor: Are you kidding me ?? He’s a dwarf, he’s bald and he looks like an ugly middle-aged woman.

Avril (upset): He’s still more handsome than your Johnson.

Angus (educational): Hey Avril, that’s not ways to talk to men… behave yourself…

Igor: She didn’t mean my dick Angus, she meant Daniel Johnston… Anyway, I don’t ask her for head-bopping at everything we listen to but there’s a discrepancy between disliking bands we like and say stupid statements on music in general…

Angus (disillusioned): You know, girls these days….

This sample of conversation was repeated over and over with slight changes through the evening. Avril said about a dozen times that Daniel Johnston sings out of tune. We explained that she was right but that it is precisely what generates the album’s charm (as usual with Daniel Johnston). She wouldn’t accept that.


Mark Linkous, who has been one of his numerous admirers (he covered ‘hey joe’ on Good Morning Spider), has apparently done all the arrangements work on Daniel’s songs on his own and then Johnston recorded the vocals. He genuinely made efforts to sing in tune and you can easily hear it. He applies himself to the singing of every syllable and therefore his lisp often comes to the fore. Fear Yourself undoubtedly will remain particular in DJ’s discography thanks to Mark Linkous’ lush production (compared to usual DJ albums because its sound remains dirty compared to other things). Johnston might have made more efforts than usually because of the production, which makes the record sound peculiar from time to time.

The album starts lo-fi to give way, after 1’30 minute, to something that is more produced. Linkous already used the device in Sparklehorse records but here it seems to signify something, as if he wanted to stress the work he did for Johnston.

Three-quarters of the songs are piano-driven and are truly depressive (‘Syrup of Tears’, ‘You Hurt Me’, Love Enchanted’) They sometimes have an atmospheric, church-like dimension because of the arrangements and make Johnston sound like an hesitating ghost (‘must’ the most recognizable Johnston song, ‘power of love’, ‘forever’), which is quite surprising at first but somehow touching mainly because of the lyrics’ naïve aspect. Let’s quote some lines: ‘I love you more than myself and I wish to see you again’ (syrup of tears’), ‘You hurt me and it’s breaking my hurt / I love you even though we’re through’ (‘You Hurt Me’), ‘I’ve always been lonely’ (‘Wish’), etc.

My favourite songs are the catchy ones. ‘Love not Dead’ surprisingly sounds like catchy Grandaddy with a different singer. Middle and soft sounding bass to the fore, eccentric noises, catchy chorus… The other songs (‘Moutain top’, ‘Fish’, ‘Living it for a Moment’ in which he is so out of tune that it seems that he made it on purpose) sound much more like Sparklehorse power-pop songs with Daniel Johnston on vocals than a DJ album, that is why some of his die-hard fans seem to dislike it. To them it sounds as if Daniel Johnston’s house was overcrowded with strangers and that the poor fellow tried to cope with that but these four overdriven indie-pop songs are really nice.

After all, Avril might like Daniel Johnston one day, either because she’ll listen to good music when she grows older or because Brian Molko praises him, which wouldn’t be too much of a surprise since it seems to be the last hip thing to praise Daniel Johnston, like some kind of charitable action… (after composing a song about war). Things had started sincerely with Sonic Youth, Kurt Cobain and Yo La tengo and now they go on with David Bowie (take into account his analysis of the album**) or Eddie Vedder for whom I have a little respect but who’s next ?

** ‘This will have to be one of my favourite albums of the year so far. All of the Johnston traits are here in abundance. Beautiful melodies, fine if painful lyrics, and a searching poignancy that clutches the heart like ice velvet.”

Ps: there is an interesting interview of Daniel Johnston for French-speakers at http://www.brdf.net

-Blacklisted Igor

/may 1st 2003/