The appeal of Daniel Johnston’s music has always been in its childlike exuberance. When he sings about Jesus, it’s with the zeal of a missionary, and when he sings about love, it’s with the intensity of a junior high infatuation. It’s no coincidence, then, that his most well-received albums are those with the most bare-bones approach to production, like Hi, How Are You? and 1990. His songs are best captured with all the emotion of the moment of their conception, unmediated by multiple takes or overdubs. The fabled boombox on his brother’s workout bench is the best recording studio for him. Any gloss or sheen lessens the primitive force of Johnston’s voice, but there have still been (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to pair him up with professional producers, most notably 2003’s Fear Yourself with Mark Linkous.
Is and Always Was is one of those attempts. It was recorded with Jason Falkner, who is known for working with decidedly hi-fi acts like Beck, Air, and Paul McCartney. And, unfortunately, Falkner fell into the trap of stretching Johnston’s songs too far. Every track here is fleshed out, played with a full band, and perfectly produced. That would be a good thing for most artists, but it only makes Johnston’s songs feel stale and overworked. This record did hit its mark better than Fear Yourself, wherein Linkous simply inserted himself too much into the songs, making it sound more like a confused collaboration than a proper Johnston album. Here, the compositions were obviously written in service of the songs, but the songs weren’t meant to carry the weight of a full ensemble.
The added instrumentation and professional gloss skews the tone of these songs to a cheerfulness that is antithetical to the darker themes that made Johnston interesting in the first place. Even his most seemingly innocuous output, like “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and similar songs, came off as the unsettling product of a naïve and innocent character finding refuge from society in fairy tales and comic books. In comparison, a track like “Queenie the Doggie” sounds more like a kindergarten sing-along. “Fake Records of Rock and Roll” could be considered an indictment of bands that invoke the idea of rock ‘n’ roll without the substance, if its generic rockabilly guitars didn’t place it in that category itself. There are a few successful tracks here — “Mind Movies” is a strong opener, and the re-recording of “I Had Lost My Mind” is an interesting take on the original — but the rest of the album suffers from similar missteps.
The tension between Daniel Johnston’s ambition toward a cinematic scope and his limited means of production made his previous records exciting, if sometimes flawed. Listeners were always forced to paint their own masterpieces from the sketches Johnston provided. Given that it’s reassuring that he is writing and recording solo material again, it’s disappointing that his fully finished renderings don’t hold the same fascination as the sketches.