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rejected unknown
Daniel Johnston
Rejected Unknown

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Jimmy Lafave has Bob Dylan, Steve Earle has Townes Van Zandt, and Matt Groening, Kathy McCarty, a Butthole Surfer and a guy from Ween have Daniel Johnston. We all have a favorite songwriter; in fact, we probably have a dozen: people who express a side of life so perfectly that we strive to approximate the description, and to fit into the feelings their songwriting has framed. Deepest among our warped human passions is this desire of ours to be art -- and more warped is our passion when our most esteemed artists are total nuts. Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett: they're all nuts, and I bet they're all people that music lovers have sometimes wanted to be. Better a crazy diamond, we think, than a humdrum stone.

Improved medication has given Daniel Johnston peace and the ability to function, but Rejected Unknown, his first solo record in seven years, remains a musical journey created by an artistic nut. No matter how healthy he may now be, the spectrum of deeply felt emotions that he wrenches from his songs far exceeds the parameters experienced by normal folk. Morrissey's girlfriends in comas can never hold back their grins, but Johnston's girl at the funeral is drop-dead depressing. Hers is an inescapable horror, so that when "Funeral Girl" unexpectedly evolves into a musical romp between the sheets, the brilliant transition to a New Orleans-flavored stomp is not funny -- it's just strange. Just as Townes Van Zandt's songs were not melodramatic when Van Zandt sung them, Johnston's songs do not have the ability to be over-the-top any more, no matter how hard he may try. Morrissey can sing "I'm unlovable" and make you giggle, but try to smile when Johnston says, "It was a mirror image of myself and I hated myself". See if you can laugh when he sings, "I'm a worthless bum, says I".

Rejected Unknown is a musically rich, catchy-as-hell, sad-as-all-fucking-get-out journey. If the sweet, hermetic, suicidal brother from Crumb had had a soundtrack, this would have been it. My favorite song of the year so far is the Unknown closer, "I Lose". It ups the ante on the childhood confusion that marked Welcome to the DollHouse. The first line ("She invited me to a pity party/Every hour, everybody was making fun of me") begins a string of "Hope-this-didn't-really-happen-to-Daniel" lyrics, and it's followed by a chorus so deftly constructed that it matches Brian Wilson at the peak of his powers, while providing a far more vivid sense of pain ("Though I try, there's no sense giving up/I lose") than Wilson ever could convey through words.

In terms of production, Rejected Unknown is as clean and radio-friendly as Fun, but the playing is inspired and truer to the spirit of Johnston's songwriting. The lyrics are much improved from his legendary cassette days, too. No funny "George Jones" songs any more, but I think it's because he's advanced the way Woody Allen has. He's no longer able to leave out pathos ("I had a dream that a guy was sentenced to death for attempting to commit suicide"), or deadening despair, just as he's no longer able to let a song succeed on lyrics alone. Every melody here is worth stealing for at least two minutes, and only a few -- "Dream Scream" and the repetitive "Impossible Love" -- grow tired after four. I'd like to see Robert Johnson, dead as he might be, try his hand at Johnston's black scorcher "Billions/Rock". I know the funeral girl would surely like that.

-- Theodore Defosse
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