Released January, 1990
“What really moves us in music is the vital sign of a human hand, in all its unsteady and broken grace”, wrote Adam Gopnik in a New Yorker article last year. And indeed, great music is often founded on imperfection—the blemishes are the best moments. The subtle crack in Dylan’s voice in the final verse of “Only A Pawn in Their Game”. The moment halfway through the Velvet Underground’s “Ocean” where the beat briefly stutters. These hiccups, far from disrupting the music, inject the songs with a sense of humanity.
Daniel Johnston’s 1990 is full of these profound moments of imperfection. The instrumentation is sparse throughout, with Johnston alternating between the hammering of piano keys and the haphazard strumming of a barely tuned acoustic guitar.
These “flaws” highlight the singer’s troubled background. While battling schizophrenia and bipolar disorder—enduring multiple breakdowns, arrests, and spells in mental institutions—he found relief in making music.
Significant too is Johnston’s religious faith, highlighted by his lyrical obsession with Satan. This fixation on the Devil demonstrates the singer’s attempt to exorcise his demons, both psychological and spiritual, through artistic expression. Daniel Johnston expresses himself with the ragged intensity of a true believer.
This passion reaches its peak with “Don’t Play Cards with Satan”, which climaxes as the singer repeatedly screams “SATAN!” as though in the throes of glossolalic madness.
But, like the light at the end of the tunnel comes the album’s centrepiece, “True Love Will Find You in the End”. In this redemptive love song, Johnston’s strumming remains unsteady, but his voice, twisted with the agony of a sinner in the previous song, is now tender and angelic.
Johnston continues to take the role of the redeemer as the album closes with a collection of raspy live recordings. In a rendition of the hymn, “Careless Soul”, he sings through floods of tears like a weary prophet, swaying on a street corner, warning us that the end is nigh.
We’re then given a performance of “Funeral Home”, a morbid celebration of death which ends in an oddly triumphant sing-along, before the record comes to a close with a recording of another hymn, “Softly and Tenderly”, sung by an assembly of churchgoers. The melody drifts along predictable lines, in the way that hymns do. But again, it’s the imperfections – a reverberating cough, the distant cry of an infant – that make this piece such a moving finish to Johnston’s twisted masterpiece.
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