"I'm a Daniel Johnston fan, but I know what I like by the guy and what I don't. I don't see him as a novelty or an oddball in the music-world; I take his musical offerings to heart and judge them according to my own tastes, filing them along with the rest of the history of music to which he belongs.
I found a quote by Daniel Johnston in which he recommends his album "1990" to fans because he says "it's one of the better of my albums." I found this tip irresistible and ordered this fairly obscure CD from the record store I frequent.
And I've listened to it a few times already, and, well, this is what I think of it:
1. "Devil Town": Excellent a capella (no music) song by Daniel. Simple and not too many words in it but it gets its message across and it's a message I can relate to... he found out he lives "in a devil town", that his friends "were vampires", and he himself "was a vampire too." A unique and endearable discovery communicated with his child-like voice. This is also a great introduction to the album.
2. "Spirit World Rising": I was disappointed with this one at first but it grew on me. It's rather simple, sparse, and rather minimalistic, musically. Lee Renaldo (guitarist) and Steve Shelley (drums) play the music on this track, and Johnston sings over it. Their playing is tighter than Johnston's is, but they don't over-do it and their contribution is excellent, modest, and effective. And Johnston's vocals are great of course.
3. "Held The Hand": Another great one. Rather short. Mentions getting on MTV that one time in the '80s and how it was holding hands with the devil. Glad to hear Johnston's on our side. :) (I HATE EmpTV, myself.)
4. "Lord Give Me Hope": A gospel-like number which appeals to me even though I don't share the Christian faith with Daniel. The plea for hope & redemption is universal and in Johnston's expression it is of course quite moving.
5. "Some Things Last A Long Time": THIS TRACK IS THE HIGHLIGHT OF THIS ALBUM, for me. Co-written with sometime musical-collaborator Jad Fair (and a songwriter in his own right and with his own acclaim although I personally haven't liked what I heard by Half-Japanese, his famous first band.) THIS SONG RANKS WITH JOHNSTON'S BEST. It is INCREDIBLY moving and although the sparse, experimental sound-effects added by producer Kramer initially put me off a bit I have come to appreciate them as excellent & eerie additions to this already excellent & eerie song. "Your picture is still on my wall, on my wall..." Excellent piano-work and lyrics and vocals by Daniel, excellent lonely & sad production and, again, sparse experimental sound-effects accompaniment by Kramer... Oh yeah, Kramer plays an awesome, simple bass-line too for the second verse.
6. "Tears Stupid Tears (live)": This is where the album goes downhill for me. This song isn't good to my ears. And mostly because I can't relate to its message (of "tears stupid tears" getting him down); as a young man having grown up in a family where we deny our feelings, I have come to appreciate the cleansing powers of a good cry and don't think I cry often enough.
7. "Don't Play Cards With Satan (live)": A bluesy song (which, like the previous song, is just Daniel singing and playing acoustic guitar live for an audience) which is all right at first but soon gets too extreme for my tastes (screaming the word "SATAN!" when he gets to it...) I'll have to come back to this one.
8. "True Love Will Find You In The End": Another highlight of this album, right up there with "Some Things Last A Long Time" but not QUITE there... I must confess I prefer sad songs to 'inspirational' songs such as this and Johnston's piano-playing to his guitar-playing. But this is STILL a GREAT song, right up there with the rest of Johnston's best. (This version is also better than both the original version from his "Retired Boxer" self-made cassette and the later live version from "Frankenstein Love, Live at the Houston Room 1992".)
9. "Got Get You Into My Life": A cover of the great McCartney-penned Beatles tune. Daniel's version is different though, being just vocals and a somewhat bad-sounding piano. It sounds like the piano may need a bit of tuning or adjustment, plus Daniel plays those low low notes on the keyboard and it makes it sound a bit awkward. It's a decent cover I guess, not nearly as good as the original Beatles song -- which is bombastic and well-orchestrated in a way that this version couldn't possibly be -- in my opinion, but interesting nonetheless to hear Daniel covering it.
10. "Careless Soul (live)": Another a capella number, this one live, and another cover of someone. Probably a gospel songwriter, seeing as this song is another gospel-like thing. As for its message, I don't like using the word "self-pitying" but I really don't know what else to describe it as. And it gets quite awkward listening to this because Daniel's choking singing voice finally breaks down into sobs at the end and one wonders who would have consented to have this revealing moment released on an album. (One might hear murmurs of "exploitation" but, remember, Johnston himself endorsed this album.)
11. "Funeral Home (live)": In one way, this original song of Johnston's is the opposite of the song that came before, in that it features a giggly sing-along from the fans in the audience, as they obey Johnston's request to sing along and they accompany his morbid lyrical message concerning the finality of death. Regretfully, I forget the exact lyrics of the chorus at the moment, suffice to say it sounded like Johnston was singing them quite seriously whereas most (if not all) of the audience seemed to think it was a sort of jokey song. Quite odd but a definite interest to serious D. Johnston fans (like myself) who delight in learning more about this songwriter/performer.
12. "Softly And Tenderly": The album's closer. This one a cover as well, and almost undoubtedly a true gospel song because it features a full choir singing it! It doesn't mention where this was recorded... Daniel's church maybe? Anyway it's not a bad song if you're open-minded and don't exclusively need the rock 'n' roll (I certainly don't) and yet I can't seem to pick out Daniel's own voice among the crowd! This should've been credited as a collaborative number -- "The Church of So-So, Daniel's local congregation", or something, I don't know.
So, anyway, that's it, the whole album. My conclusions:
(1) This is an essential album for serious fans and collectors of Daniel Johnston's music.
(2) However, this might not be one of the best places to start if you're NEW to Daniel Johnston. And, really, I wouldn't know what to recommend as a good introduction to Daniel Johnston. "Songs Of Pain" might be a great starter -- the first song on that album, "Grievances", is probably THE classic Johnston song and the best way to get introduced to Johnston -- but it does have some elements that weren't repeated in later Daniel Johnston tapes/albums and might therefore be a misleading introduction... Maybe the forthcoming "Best of Daniel Johnston" collection entitled "Welcome To My World" might be the best place to start... or, you could always contact ME personally and I could make a great introductory tape to send your way :)
Marc Sommer | DC | 01/22/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is unlike any other album you may have. Much of it is performed a capella, or with spare, ominous instrumentation (most notably on "Spirit World Rising", as Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Lee Renaldo accompany Daniel). The entire set sounds like it was performed live, in an echoey church, and fittingly the last track is a hymn with an entire congregation joining in. This is an album about devils, vampires, spirits, tears (stupid tears), death, love, "SATAN!" and the Beatles. Welcome to the world of Daniel Johnston. My favorite of his albums, for its simplicity and power and beauty."
Looking for Love
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Anyone who has heard Daniel's music knows that he is, without a doubt, one of the kings of home recording. His records rarely sound like they had a budget of more than $100 and "1990" is no exception. The subject matter varies from tragic anthems of love, to warnings against making deals with the devil. Delightfully innocent and strangley beautiful, Johnston sings with an uneasy quiver that reeks of sincerity."
Find it and never let it go
J. Zovko | LA, CA | 02/23/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is an album that will keep you company throughout your life, always by your side, reminding you that you are not alone. The feelings laid down by Daniel Johnston are so simple, universal, so frightening, and so beautiful. This is the music you feel inside yourself, quietly singing, but is seldom heard. It is living and breathing like so few works of art. Hopefully you come across it one day and hold on to it till the end."