Review: Daniel Johnston – Is And Always Was

I had first heard of Daniel Johnston (left in photo above) when I was in high school. My friend had referred to him as some sort of idiot-savant folk messiah. Only a year-and-a-half ago did I do some research on the man and his music. I listened to his songs, I watched the documentary on his life, and I was absolutely enthralled with his story. All of a sudden, his music came with a deeply-rooted context that had not existed before. I had become a fan within hours of listening to one of his early tapes, Hi, How Are you? and haven’t turned back.

His latest album, Is And Always Was, was just released a few days ago. I have had the pleasure of listening to it in full and after I finished, I realized that I had a few things to say about the album.

Firstly, Is and Always Was seems a lot like the one amazing project at the science fair that wasn’t actually put together by the kid but by his parents.

Secondly, the album isn’t bad. Let me get that out of the way, this album isn’t bad by any means. It has 12 great songs, all with Daniel’s classic, clever wordplay. Some of which I fancy quite more than the others.
The first, “Mind Movies” opens the album with a strong strumming guitar; a great way to bring listeners back to Johnston’s wonderful world in which his songs reside. Immediately we become aware that this song, like most of his songs, is an ode to his failure to win the heart of his high school crush, Laurie. I don’t know about you but that subject hit’s quite close to home. Hearing Daniel sing “I’m just a psycho trying to write a song” just gets me in that right way. In between the soft, airy choruses that were undoubtedly an idea proposed by producer Jason Falkner, this has Daniel Johnston written all over it.

Both “High Horses” and “Without You” begin with some piano which is really refreshing. After all, Daniel’s better at piano than he is at guitar.
The album’s first single, “Freedom” is a really solid track with a little slide guitar on it. The album pretty much keeps a solid pace up until the title track which brings things down to a more intimate, almost ballad-like level with Daniel crooning over some howling guitar and deep drums. Then the album’s final track, the epic “Light of Day“, brings the album full circle with one last hurrah of love.

Now that I’ve spoken about individual tracks, let me address the album as a whole. After hearing “Freedom” a month or so ago, I felt two things: anxiety and anticipation.

I knew that this album would sound much better in terms of recording quality and instrumentation. What I was afraid of was that maybe Daniel’s initial vision would get lost in all of this polished workmanship.

Luckily, it doesn’t seem like it did. The album sounds great with Daniel as sharp as ever. Instead of being a hindrance, this fresh production serves as a complimentary element to Daniel’s music.

Is and Always Was is out now on Eternal Yip Eye Music on both CD and LP.

Daniel Johnston – Freedom

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