Review: Daniel Johnston, Welcome To My World

It’s hard to think of a better single-disc collection to represent Johnston’s prodigious catalog.

Daniel Johnston, Welcome to My WorldIt hardly bears repeating that Daniel Johnston suffers from manic depression, was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, draws vibrant and troubling magic marker comic-books, inspired Kurt Cobain, and has bared his soul on dissonant, homemade lo-fi recordings for over 20 years. Clearly the man makes good documentary fodder, but does he deliver the goods? Welcome to My World, a self-released greatest hits compilation, arrives hot on the heels of the hit film The Devil and Daniel Johnston and ought to keep the Johnston legacy from being categorized as novelty. Welcome to My World is right: long-time followers and fanatics may grumble—no “King Kong?” Nothing from Fun?—but this is a near-perfect introduction for Johnston newcomers.

The compilation opens with the early masterpiece “Peek A Boo,” which is one of Johnston’s most confessional and painful ballads. Every line in “Peek A Boo” is a treasure (“Please hear my cry for help and save me from myself!”) and Johnston is in a unique position as a songwriter to evoke a connection between mental illness and romantic anguish and, like a good songwriter, he leads his listener to sympathy. But Johnston is not just a good songwriter, he’s an exceptional one, and he cuttingly reminds us that while sympathy is all fine and good, we are unable to empathize: “You can listen to these songs/Have a good time and walk away/But for me, it’s not that easy/I have to live these songs forever.” Like most of the Daniel Johnston canon, the recording is fuzzy and the arrangement simple (nothing more than Johnston’s piercing tenor, a piano, and background noise), but the melody is one of his most striking achievements as a songwriter—although it’s not the most striking achievement.

Welcome to My World has all the inarguable classics: the oft-cited “Walking The Cow,” the Sunday school sing-a-long “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances,” the seamless ballad “True Love Will Find You In The End,” and the let’s-go-to-the-hop bounce of “Speeding Motorcycle,” which made it into a commercial for Target, I’ve been told. Welcome to My World also features two rare cuts, “Lennon Song” and “Laurie” from a long out of print EP. “Lennon Song,” in particular, is essential, a tin-pan alley shuffle where Johnston ponders the immortality of faith and fame, debates the existence of God with the ghost of John Lennon, and proclaims, “The Beatles brought me out of the darkness/And I could feel real again.” It must be said: Johnston’s songs are often hysterically funny—personally, I’ve never made it through “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances” without guffawing at “Don’t forget to forgive and forget!” But unlike the late Wesley Willis, Johnston’s recordings never feel exploitative, because they exist as more than a goofy case study; they’re representations of a homegrown pop-genius at work.

There’s nothing on Welcome to My World more recent than 1990, which means we’re spared some of Johnston’s weakest output—the collaborations with Half Japanese’s Jad Fair are particularly hit or miss—but the switch from lo-fi on the recent Rejected Unknown and Fear Yourself has been under-appreciated by Johnston fanatics, and selections would have well-served this comp. One also wonders why Welcome to My World follows so quickly after the double-disc tribute compilation-and-greatest-hits pairing The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered. Welcome to My World is the superior of the two anthologies, if only because it eschews the implicit suggestion that these songs can or should be improved upon, but curious minds may find the transition into Johnston fandom easier with Discovered Covered’s Beck and Flaming Lips tracks. Regardless, it’s hard to think of a better single-disc collection to represent Johnston’s prodigious catalog than Welcome to My World.

 Label: High Wire Music  Release Date: April 18, 2006  Buy: Amazon

Jimmy Newlin

James Newlin received his PhD in English from the University of Florida. His research is primarily concerned with the reception of Shakespeare in intellectual history, though he has also published articles on film and contemporary literature.

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