Review Summary: The famed bi-polar songsmith at his earliest stage. Songs of Pain is excellent, funny, endearing.
In all of the most cliché books and movies the likeable boy always makes something for his crush/girlfriend/wife/mom on Christmas/Valentines Day/Birthday/Mother’s Day. Maybe it’s the extra effort, the thought put into it, the little bit of heart and soul the giver always leaves behind. Maybe that’s what turns these TV chicks on so hard about homemade stuff. There’s more emotion in something you make yourself than there is in something mass-produced; or, at least, the emotion is easier to find. Girls dig emotion.
But I think the reaction you would get from giving your best girl Songs of Pain might be a little different than the one you would get from, say, a clay pot. But still, homemade is undeniably the best adjective to attach to Daniel Johnston’s first album, though one might hesitate to use the term ‘album’. You see, Songs of Pain and Johnston’s subsequent release, More Songs of Pain are more compilations of random tunes recorded from Johnston’s parents’ home than full fledged records. Johnston’s first “real album” is the slightly less tuneful Yip/Jump Music; all three were self-released.
The first track on Songs of Pain defines not only the album, but a good portion of Daniel’s other early songs. Grievances’ quality (recording quality that is) is bad. A blunt statement, sure, but it’s a necessary one. Everything is swathed in reverb, as if recorded from inside a jar or something and Daniel’s earnest, bashful, and somewhat kitschy vocals are barely audible, even though the only other instrument accompanying it is a piano. Johnston’s lyrics in Grievances foreshadow many of the other topics covered within the collection, some of which include unrequited love (more often than not with a librarian), obsession with mortality, and a kind of conflict of interests between Dan’s lonely teenage mind and his fear of god. But most importantly, Grievances showcases Johnston’s impressive ability to shrink major ethical problems and issues into awkwardly relatable moments of brilliance.
On Pothead, one of the best tunes on the record, Daniel switches it up. Now his lyrics are rallying against one specific person, (the pothead) and the results are, in a word, endearing. Johnston’s bitterness towards the pothead is what drives the song (he really tears this guy a new one), while his simple piano playing explores much darker territory in the verses and morphs, without warning, into the song’s brilliant, shuffle-style chorus. But if Johnston’s idiosyncratic style and bizarre lyrics seem cute on Pothead, then they’re damn near shocking on A Little Story, Daniel’s interpretation of new America’s shift away from religion. After Grievances, a smart, innocent pop tune, A Little Story garners a reaction somewhat akin to hearing a little boy or girl saying a really nasty word. Story is something a middle-aged religious-freak would spout, far from something you’d expect from one of Indie’s best-loved songwriters. It’s the same story with Wicked World. And on Wicked Will, Dan combines elements of both Pothead and A Little Story, to create a peculiar sort of fable. But whether said “fable” warns listeners about homosexuality (Wicked Will wearing Easy Sue’s clothes) or pre-marital sex (this one should be kind of obvious), one of the album’s most covered topics (ex. Joy Without Pleasure and Pre Marital Sex, the latter of which is also the collection’s only song to feature a instrument other than piano: organ) is a difficult thing to decide. Regardless, the song’s catchy refrain and Johnston’s jazzy piano “solo” midway through make the song a standout.
At the risk of turning this review into a list of the album’s best songs, An Idiot’s End is another obvious standout. Johnston’s lyrics are at the most cryptic, his music at its most mature. Johnston sings himself in circles on the song’s downtrodden chorus and murmurs delightful (if halfway depressing) gibberish in the verses. The piano, the music, which is still doused in fuzz and reverb (though not intentionally of course), is stark, gloomy and deep. It’s mostly made up of chords in the bass section of the keyboard, bouncing around beneath Johnston as he spits curious truths about bosoms, jesters, rats, and razor blades.
Overall, Songs of Pain is funny, charming, disgusting, pretty much everything. I guess that seems too broad a description for a collection of songs made with just piano and vocals, and it probably is, but Songs of Pain certainly garners a bunch of different reactions, many of which change dramatically from song to song. And if Johnston’s genius can be questioned here, then let it be. I certainly can’t fault it.