Despite being diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental illness which has affected his career from very early on, Daniel Johnston has achieved varying levels of success in his lifetime. Mostly recording Lo-Fi records, and originally distributing them himself on cassette tapes, Johnston has become famous for releasing songs with brutal honesty regarding his life, his emotions, and his thoughts.
Achieving local fame in Austin, Texas, where he moved after growing up in California, Johnston’s performances were highly anticipated. However, after recording with producer Mark Kramer as a result of his newfound fame, Johnston was admitted to hospital as a result of a psychotic episode in which he threw the key from the ignition of his father’s plane out of the window. However, despite being in a mental institute, Johnston’s fame sky-rocketed after Kurt Cobain was seen wearing a t-shirt featuring the cover image of one of his albums. Johnston signed to Atlanta Records in 1994, but struggled to achieve widespread recognition with his subsequent albums.
The Late Great Daniel Johnston involves numerous high profile musicians, covering Johnston’s work, putting their own slant and style on his songwriting. The covering of such songs allows for the listener to experience Johnson’s songs and lyrics with greater ease than attempting to dive blindly into his extensive discography. Artists such as Eels who meticulously produce their albums (almost to overproduction) give Johnson’s songs a more familiar feeling, something his Lo-Fi ‘demos’ lack. However, to say these artists improve on his songs is to misunderstand the purpose of this album. The Late Great Daniel Johnson allows for greater accessibility to Johnson’s lyrics and work than his own recordings ever could. Johnson’s work is brilliant, but to fully enjoy his discography takes some effort, the work of these artists avoids this problem entirely, opening up Johnson’s art to a new and expansive market of music enthusiasts.
If the above reasons are not enough in themselves to convince you to listen to this album, the large list of high profile artists on the bill surely will. Some of the artists appearing on this album are: Eels, Teenage Fanclub, TV On The Radio, Beck, The Flaming Lips, M Ward, and Tom Waits. The only thing missing from this album is Lana Del Ray’s cover of ‘Some Things Last a Long Time’ (recorded later for the short film ‘Hi How Are You Daniel Johnston’) , which you can find below.
Despite the bonus track on the album, ‘Rock This Town’, being a shoddy end to an otherwise brilliant album, this compilation of Johnston’s work quite easily achieves a four star rating.
Artist: Compilation (Daniel Johnston cover album)
Label: Gammon Records
Release date: Sept 21, 2004
Play time: 132 mins
Standout track: Living Life (Eels, Daniel Johnston)