Daniel Dale Johnston

It’s been a while since he released anything, but Daniel Johnston is back with one of his strongest efforts to date. For those who don’t know, Johnston is a little like Jonathan Richman, in that he sings honest, endearing songs about love (though Johnstons’ are more bizarrely original and, in the best cases, more alive).

The album opens up with an upbeat folk rocker, “Impossible Love,” lamenting his lost love, the girl with the brown hair who left him for a funeral director during his youth. Similar topics follow: “Funeral Girl” begins with a piano dirge accompanied by nighttime crickets ("I love a girl at the funeral/ everyone in my hometown knew about it/ they always talk about how it’s funny/ they really should do away with funerals/ you ain’t really dead, this I swear"), then midway through breaks into a rollicking, upbeat funk number complete with horns. The minor-key lament, “Cathy Cline,” may be one of the clearest Beatles-inspirations, with its descending half-step melody via slow piano and string section. Grabbing the electric guitar for a basic blues progression, Daniel belts out a classic new original, “The Spook” ("a message to all you hicks out there … you’ve nothing more to fear than fear/ love’s alive/ love ain’t no jive/ so you better listen up and hear")—he insists this song is one of his favorites. “Billions/Rock” is a hilarious Spinal Tap-like mockery of arena rock that begins with a gravelly voice introducing the song, then careens into a Stooges-style jam with Johnston screaming, “My baby loves to rock! She’s my best baby [assorted hawk screams and improv banter]! I’m gonna rock the world with my power!!!” and repeated hilarity for eight minutes. “Wedding Ring Bells Blues” and “I Lose” end the album on a somewhat dreamy, upbeat note while still rooted in the oldest tradition of the blues.

Brian Beattie should be applauded for the overall excellent job of production (and playing) he brought to the album. While some debate the exploitation of mentally disturbed artists in the rock world (Wesley Willis, for example), Johnston doesn’t really fit that category any longer, thanks to new medication; he deserves to be appreciated as a songwriter with uncommon clarity and talent. This is guaranteed to be one of the most vital recordings of the year from the indie/underground music world.