Fear Yourself

What if Brian Wilson had never completely returned from ruined-voice, MOR-mush zombieland? Would we tiptoe around such delicate matters and still treat him like a conquering hero? How about Syd Barrett? If he’d ever completed that third solo album, given that the bits and pieces he did get down on tape before his final collapse are meandering nonsense and sheer torture to listen to, would we accord it the same musical legendariness as, say, a treasure-trove of unreleased Hendrix outtakes? These are relevant questions since, historically, we’ve always given our artists a wide berth — after all, they’re artists, right? Never mind those pesky little details — here’s a girlfriend-whupping alcoholic songmeister, there’s a coke-addled, hissy fit-pitching superstar, and over yonder is indiedom’s resident pet rock, schizophrenic potty-mouth Wesley Willis — as long as they light up our lives in song and merriment. But is it a wide berth we’re talking about, or actually just a free pass they’re getting that they don’t really deserve? Lord knows the press, always eager for journalistic hooks, is the most blatant offender — make that codependant — of ’em all.

A textbook case is that of Texas singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, whose mental illness-informed naïf-pop is adored by all the “right” indie types but whose so-called outsider art is deemed by more cynical among us to be best left outside. On the curb. Awaiting the weekly trash pick-up. While early on (Johnston’s been cranking out homemade tapes and albums since the mid ’80s) he may have hit the target on random occasion, even an obvious gem like “Speeding Motorcycle” owes its stature more to winsome interpretations by Yo La Tengo and Mary Lou Lord, artists whose patronage, like that of Kramer, Jad Fair, Paul Leary and others, always seemed to smack more of salvage-ops charity work then true artistic collaborations. Enter Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous. The dozen songs here are, sonically and arrangement-wise, gorgeous. At least two of ’em — full-gallop power-popper “Love Not Dead” and the wobbly garage-groover “Fish” — have teeth, and several of the more atmospheric tracks have a lush Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev ambience. Linkous essentially expands upon Johnston’s rudimentary guitar-and-piano compositions, fleshing them out with his own wide-open-spaces ideas, and, in that limited regard, the collaboration is “successful.”

Sadly, though, not even Linkous can prop up this house of cards for long. Johnston consistently shoots himself in the foot, either from employing sad-sack lyrics and extraordinarily clichéd metaphors (“snow-white turtle dove,” “an everlasting cup,” “love’s twisted fate,” etc.) or simply being unable to maintain a steady course across actual meters and melodies (Dylan, he ain’t). He vainly reaches for high notes that ain’t there, and his annoying lisp has gotten more pronounced with age. Cruel though this may seem toward both Johnston and his loyal minions, someone has to say it: The emperor doesn’t have a goddamn stitch of clothing on, and it’s not a pretty sight — or sound.

E-mail Fred Mills at [email protected].

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