It’s rather telling that the music of a man diagnosed with manic depression and schizophrenia, music so strange and unconventional that it’s usually labeled as “outsider music,” manages to connect on such a sublime emotional level with those who let it get inside them. If this man was truly an outsider, if he were truly so different from us, then no one would get this, the emotions and ideas here pictured would be alien to us and we would be indifferent to this music. I have yet to see music cause so strong an emotional reaction, and a genuinely deep affliction, as the music of Daniel Johnston. Daniel Johnston is not “mad” because he is different, or strange, or incomprehensible, we call him “mad” because he is altogether too human, to the point where it’s unbearable and heartbreaking to watch him attempt to grasp and grapple with the world.
What does this sound like? It’s a grown man singing in a high-pitched, childish voice, often out of key and without paying much attention to traditional melodic structures. He plays organ and guitar, the first rather well the second terribly; heartily ignoring tempi and time signatures, often neglecting even to tune. His songs are strange and cryptic, often lacking discernible structures or cycles, occasionally interrupted by bizarre, samples. The recording quality is beyond lo-fi; the hum of the tape deck is often louder than Johnston himself.
Through these meager, often adverse means, or perhaps partly because of them, Johnston manages to capture a level of emotion and sincerity that is simply impossible to find anywhere else. His obsession with characters like Captain America and Casper the friendly ghost are a testament to his childlike innocence. It is precisely the impossibility of this unbelievably pure demeanor to come to terms with a terrifying world that is so heartbreaking, so devastating and moving about Johnston’s music. The lyrics, the performance, the recording, the songs themselves: it’s all so raw, so indelibly naked and shameless that simply knowing that a grown man can display so shocking a transparency is revelatory in its own right. There are many depressing records, but what puts “Songs of Pain” miles away from all of them is the confusion, the failure to understand why the world isn’t perfect, why true love isn’t attainable, why everyone isn’t happy. The pain shines all the brighter because it is delivered without a single ounce of cynicism.
I tend to oppose talking about the artist rather than the art, but “Songs of Pain” is so pure an expression that the two are inseparable. You can’t help but feel for Johnston, to come to love him in his own right, he gets inside your skin, his pain and confusion became all too entirely yours. Wherever you are Daniel Johnston, thank you for your beautiful music; I hope you’re happy.