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Daniel Johnston | Fear Yourself (Gammon)
Ever since his commitment to various mental hospitals throughout the early 1990s, Daniel Johnston's output has been marred by inconsistencies, irregularities and downright laziness. While his many 1980s cassette releases were equally disparate in tone, there was no denying the creative will and insistent urgency of those recordings. Johnston's last truly worthwhile album was the Paul Leary-assisted 'Fun' from 1994. Since then, his recordings have been fewer, the quality lesser, and the musicianship both tidier and duller. Johnston always thrived on making music for himself only, out of necessity, but this sense of importance and presence have been on the losing end ever since his signing with a major label, and corresponding with his last mental breakdown.

'Fear Yourself' is the sound of an artist coming around again, and more so, of one surpassing his earlier releases to produce his strongest effort yet. One reason for this may be Johnston's newfound sense of self and sustainability. While this is anything but a happy album, Johnston carries with him the world-weariness and consideration that's been missing from recent albums. And then there's Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous, an ardent fan of Johnston's, who brilliantly steps in and vitally guides the compositions towards fulfilment. Where Johnston's latest albums have been partly ruined by studio musician's polished interpretations, Linkous goes in the opposite direction, embracing Johnston's musical oddities and irregularities rather than trying to fit them into a state of bland marketability.
Taking on the guise of a conceptual exploration of the miseries of love and on how to still find reason and comfort in the hope of being loved, Johnston has crafted his best work to date, in no small part due to Linkous' re-treading and rephrasing of his original compositions. Johnston's idiosyncratic voice, guitar and piano playing form the basis for 'Fear Yourself', but it's Linkous' careful exploration of these original tracks that further their musical potential and meaning.

Talking to Linkous earlier this year, he admitted being wary of a song like Syrup of Tears coming across as "flamboyant parody." It's a fine line to thread, but Linkous never oversteps it - his contributions define Johnston's music even more so than the original recordings must have done. Linkous maintains a respectful distance to Johnston's missteps and frail deliveries, using them to shape this coherent vision, rather than to avoid or even erase the music's off-centredness.

The closing Living It For The Moment may be the album's only solid miss, a ludicrous indie rocker with no discernible musical purpose on an otherwise impressively consistent and crafted album. But its ending line, repeated with exhausted frailty, still serves to sum up the album's conceptual bipolarity: "Living it for the moment / Are you gonna smile or fall on your face," Johnston asks, pointing to the album's undercurrent of dark hopefulness. "Love can save you now," he insists. Clinging to that fragile trust, insisting on the despairing hope of being loved, 'Fear Yourself' presents Johnston at his best and most consistent yet, and single-handedly rejuvenates his position as one of the most unique, brave voices in independent music today.

Stein Haukland
March-April 2003