Daniel Johnston 

Is and Always Was

When most singers lament about their tenuous hold on sanity, it's usually poetic license. But when Daniel Johnston sings about losing his mind, he just might mean it, for real. Johnston's struggles with mental illness are intertwined with his career path — they're an indie-rock folktale, part of his legend as much as the rickety lo-fi recordings that made him an underground sensation. However, Johnston isn't some ironic, so-bizarre-he's-good novelty act; his songs have an undeniable appeal, and like those of fellow travelers Brian Wilson and the late Syd Barrett, they feature bittersweet, unfussy melodies and unadulterated emotional expression.

Is and Always Was finds producer (and power-pop auteur) Jason Falkner infusing Johnston's tunes with a reasonably accomplished, punchy rock 'n' roll ambience — imagine a garage-band Ben Folds or a rough-hewn and loopy Ron Sexsmith. The droll, effervescent "Without You" could garner mainstream radio play, by gum! The playfully overstated "Tears" is a mopey ballad that, well, makes fun of mopey ballads: Love was leaving me/packed its bags to go. The dense, echo-laden title song recalls the anguished, voyage-to-the-bottom-of-my-soul rants of John Lennon (e.g., "Isolation," Gimme Some Truth").

Johnston's vocals are, granted, an acquired taste — slightly quavering with a hint of a lisp — but they've a charming plainspoken quality. Like Batman's archenemy the Joker, Is is a reminder of just how alluring "madness" can be (especially if it's not homicidal and has a good beat). (High Wire/Eternal Eye)

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