Quick Artist Bio: Daniel Johnston is one of the premier singer-songwriters you can listen to, but this comes at the expense of being one of the most unstable artists to have ever released music. Johnston’s music isn’t particularly complex, it’s usually either unaccompanied or with an acoustic guitar he can’t play very well, but he creates a lo-fi folk sound that’s helped define the indie folk genre. This sound can be heard especially in his homemade cassette releases that he used to begin his career in the Austin music scene. A defining aspect of Johnston’s life has been his struggle with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia which have lead him into mental institutions and arrests multiple times while he avoided medication for live shows or song writing.
The recording sessions for 1990 actually took place in 1988 and were never able to be completed fully because of Johnston’s mental problems and instability in New York City. The album had to be pieced together by adding in home and live recordings to create a finished product capable of being released while friends tried to force Johnston to return home for his own sake. Once this did happen, Johnston immediately broke into the house of an elderly woman who jumped out of a second story window to escape and broke both of her ankles upon hitting the ground. Johnston would later claim that he was possessed by demons during the incident, and two years later his mental instability would show itself again when he removed the key from a two-person plane his father was piloting mid flight and threw it out the window. This time Johnston believed that he was Casper the friendly ghost, a thought that occurred for him often during his manic episodes, and a thought that nearly killed them. Fortunately Johnston’s father was trained for emergency scenarios like this and was able to successfully crash the plane in a field of trees immediately below them in a way that neither was injured badly, but Johnston was readmitted to a mental hospital because of it. Johnston is a cursed man who’s struggles are sad and worrisome, but the songs that he creates are remarkably relatable for what he’s been through, and 1990 is a collection of some of his finest work from an impressive musical career.
1990 opens with two tracks that likely tell the same story about his failed attempt to go to college at Abilene Christian University in West Texas. The opener is the infamous “Devil Town”, a tale told in a full eight lines of a narrator having the sudden realization that he’s been living in a town where all his friends were vampires, and it “turns out I was a vampire myself in the devil town”. Johnston was and still is a very religious man who looked for symbolic references wherever he could, and he was very fearful of people he believed to be demonically possessed. “Devil Town” is a story of mistrust, drug use, and the demons that haunt him, but it’s told in a way that you can relate to it even if your only shared experience with Johnston is hating the location you’ve been stuck in. “Devil Town” leads right into the track that is definitively about his time in Abilene, “Spirit World Rising”, a haunting track where there are segments where the only thing breaking the silence is a strong acoustic guitar strum being done every few seconds. The chorus is a great example of Johnston giving a complete message in seemingly nonsensical lyrics as he emphatically states “The Spirit World Rising/The Devil Has Texas”. These religious references are a continuing theme on 1990, from Johnston’s pleas in “Lord Give Me Hope” to his warnings on “Don’t Play Cards with Satan”.
My favorite live recording on 1990 is a track named “Funeral Home”, where Johnston continuously urges the audience to sing the stanza with him one more time, turning they’re imminent trip to a coffin into a forced joyful sing-along. “Everybody it’s gonna happen, you know it’s gonna happen. It happens every day, billions and billions of people have already died, you too will die. Sing along with us won’t you?” Johnston tells the crowd as they awkwardly laugh and half-oblige to his request. Then there’s the song that probably defines Johnston’s career in “True Love Will Find You in the End”. This track is far and away the most accessible thing that Daniel Johnston has ever recorded and today is sadly being displayed in an axe commercial. It’s a simple song sending this message of hope on the quest for love, but the fact that this is a Daniel Johnston track is a bit absurd. The man who suffers from horrible mental illnesses and believes in demonic possession of those around him and himself still holds a firm belief that true love does exist, and will find you as long as you continue to search. It’s a reason to stay hopeful told by a man who regularly sees Satan.
“This is a promise with a catch
Only if you’re looking can it find you
‘Cause true love is searching too
But how can it recognize you unless you step out into the light, the light
Don’t be sad I know you will
But don’t give up until
True love will find you in the end”
Daniel Johnston still tours today, and recently opened up for Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes does a cover of Johnston’s “Devil Town” on Noise Floor: Rarities 1998-2005) on a solo tour last year and will be playing at least one of the dates on the newly announced Neutral Milk Hotel reunion tour.