Daniel Johnston: Artistic Vice (1991)

I've always had mixed emotions about listening to the late lamented Daniel Johnston. To be sure, some of his songs stand up relatively well on their own as wide-eyed, child-like, home-brewed indie rock. But you also have to wonder if the music would be half as interesting without an appreciation of Johnston's struggles with mental illness and backstory. The fantastic documentary The Devil & Daniel Johnston -- a must-see if you haven't seen it before -- certainly raises the difficult question of where the appreciation of challenging, outsider art ends and exploitation begins.

That preface aside, Artistic Vice comes about as close as any of his records to holding up strictly on its own merits, skewed post-punk DIY pop that is only a few degrees removed from, say, Jonathan Richman or the early Violent Femmes. With the assistance of an actual backing band, the material is aesthetically far more approachable than his earlier bedroom recordings, almost alt.rock radio friendly at times, but still leaving Johnston's voice relatively unvarnished (in contrast to some later works).  And much of it is genuinely heart-warming and life-affirming if you're willing to drop your defenses.

Lead-off track "My Life Is Starting Over" is a veritable call to arms, Johnston in a chipper mood as he rollicks through a 50s-styled Chuck Berry tune that still sounds like the whole thing could very well collapse about mid-song. "Easy Listening" falls just shy of earnest power pop, but for the waver in Johnston's voice; the comparable "Hoping" gets the same job done in under a minute; and "Tell Me Now" again sees Johnston turning to classic 50s rock tropes to ground his unorthodox music in a more traditional setting. Stand-out "Honey I Sure You Miss You" seems a near-perfect merger between Johnston's raw soul-baring and a veneer of indie pop sugar.

Of course, there are still plenty of more stripped-down songs where you see the troubled Johnston alone in his basement with his guitar, like the moving ode to his muse "Laurie," not to mention a number of songs tapping into his fixation on Casper, the Friendly Ghost; but the ramshackle, down-home band backing (still a long way from polished rock & roll) makes this a much less emotionally grueling journey than much of his other work.

Here's an audio rip of "Easy Listening":
Here's a kinda creepy animated lyrics video for "Honey I Sure Miss You":
Here's Daniel, late in his life, performing "My Life Is Starting Over":