Why do we even listen to music? For inspiration, relaxation, celebration. To remember, to mourn, to laugh, to honor, to dance. To cut loose. To peep in on someone’s darkest, most desperate, most vulnerable feelings that have been recorded and not feel so alone. None of these sacred rituals cover the experience of listening to Daniel Johnston’s 1990. This record transcends any notion of mass marketed music, then transports the listener to another dimension. The spirit world. Each track demands you to hold Johnston’s hand in order to pass the threshold.
Johnston spent much of the eighties pouring his heart and soul into homemade recordings, documenting his heartbreak, his fantasies, and his disappointments for anyone willing to listen. Johnson wasn’t making music, he was opening his veins onto cassette tapes. Strangers on the street would receive unique masters because Johnston didn’t know how to dub copies. A cult of supporters amassed, and eventually pushed this outsider artist working at a McDonald’s in Austin, Texas, to the apex of eighties relevance: an appearance on MTV.
1990 provided the opportunity for Johnston to leave behind the fuzzy boombox recordings and explore his muses within the confines of a real studio in New York City. The opening track “Devil Town” consists of only Johnston’s lisp dashed with reverb. Hell on earth materializes in the soft warble. All of Johnston’s friends are vampires. Turns out, he is one too. Johnston doesn’t seem too upset about it, with his vocal delivery carrying an air of acceptance. A smile might be cracking as he serenades the microphone.
Johnston’s own private hellscape keeps billowing outward with “Spirit World Rising.” As Johnston strums a lone guitar, his home state of Texas turns into hell. The devil has Texas. Johnston later claims the devil is defeated, but it sure doesn’t sound like it. On “Lord Give Me Hope,” Johnston sings as if he is doing everything he possibly can to keep up with the piano, all while paying penance for his sins. Johnston abandons any sense of self-deprecating humor he once mastered in songs like “Story of an Artist,” and also shuns familiar characters like Joe the Boxer and Casper the Friendly Ghost who frequented prior recordings. Johnston’s very soul is on the line.
Much like Johnston’s unhinged creativity, 1990 can’t be contained within a studio, drifting into several live performances that blast from the stage like a fire hydrant.
Johnston cranks his playful charm to ten on “Tears Stupid Tears,” with a crowd cheering him on as he recounts his shortcomings. He lulls the crowd with a playful verse: How could you know that’s where the wind blows? / Out to the wind, that’s where my love goes. Later, Johnston drops the profound punchline: I was born in the body and right from the start / Those tears, stupid tears, been tearing us apart.
“Don’t Play Cards with Satan” finds Johnston impersonating a Pentecostal preacher making his case to the atheists and agnostics of the world. Johnston stages a haunting scene, softly singing about hearing the devil cry in the woods, followed by the vision of his own heart laying black with blood. Did I ever stop and tell you, I am a desperate man? he asks the crowd. Bedroom folk music soon explodes into fire and brimstone. A shaky, uncertain guitar riff dissolves into the ether, and Johnston screams out “Satan!” three times to end the song. You might think Lucifer himself is on stage, breathing down Johnston’s neck.
The moment Johnston quits screaming at the devil, an updated recording of his defining ballad, “True Love Will Find You in the End” begins. This tonal shift is either a dash of comedy or a deep breath to recover from what has preceded. The track remains an essential entry in the Great American songbook, even if the definitive version had already been released six years prior on Retired Boxer (1984). The original version portrays a fragile soul in a closet, singing to themself, crafting their own working class version of “I Will Survive.” Johnston simply recorded a perfect version of a perfect song, setting a standard that no other take could surpass.
Always in the shadow of “True Love” is one of Johnston’s most gorgeous compositions in “Some Things Last a Long Time.” Four shining piano chords lilt in the breeze on a summer day that stretches into twilight. Johnston reflects on a life of undying devotion in lieu of romance, oblivious to any other concern. Your picture is still on my wall, attests Johnston, the colors are bright as ever… some things last a life time. Johnston sounds blissfully lost in this moment, content to live in the key of C and unrequited love for as long as he can. Safe and sound, far away from “Devil Town.”
Johnston hams it up on a thunderous cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life,” slamming the low register of a piano and forging a crude tribute to the Magical Mystery Tour highlight. 1990 is full of moments that haunt and disturb, but here Johnston is having fun, singing with unfettered glee, holding tight to one of his trademarks – chasing the unattainable girl.
The studio walls melt away for good by the end of 1990, leaving Johnston in the big, bad world armed with nothing but a guitar. “With feeling! It’s gonna happen!” he shouts at a captive crowd. “It happens everyday. Millions and millions of people have died. You too will die.” Not exactly what you plan on hearing while out on the town. Johnston wants his audience to sing along with him: Funeral home, funeral home. Goin’ to that funeral home. Got me a coffin, shiny and black. I’m goin to the funeral and I’m never comin’ back. The spectators snicker and oblige, lifting up this dire nursery rhyme. Johnston keeps banging on an acoustic that can’t stay in tune. “Louder!” he commands mid-verse. Not content, the singer demands another round, another moment to relish in the spotlight. The crowd audibly gasps, with one spectator laughing out, “I can’t.”
A sense of existential dread pervades 1990, and Johnston attempts to exorcise the demons at the albums close, leading a church congregation through the gospel hymn “Softly and Tenderly.” Babies scream while pious worshipers envision Jesus calling home the sinners. Johnston, safe from the vampires and the spirit world, can rest easy in good company, under God’s roof.
1990 lies in the middle of Johnston’s catalog in a precarious position. The warm tones of his home recordings are replaced with a larger sound, with Johnston’s dreams and desperation laid bare for all to listen. Freed from his work shifts at McDonald’s, emancipated from his parents’ basement, then let loose into the streets of New York – fire walks with Johnston wherever he goes throughout 1990.