Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., May 16, 2003
Daniel JohnstonThe Early Recordings Volume 1: Songs of Pain/More Songs of Pain 1980-83 (Dualtone) Instead of firing off Earthly messages into the void, crammed full of mathematical, pictographical, and tonal information, all NASA ever really had to do was send up a couple of Daniel Johnston's early cassettes and one of those boxy old tape recorders for the ETs to play it on. Johnston's spare, deceptively simplistic, and subversively engaging singer-songwriting said then and still says now everything we'd ever want them to know about us: We're lovesick fools. Lovesick fools inward-bound on a perpetual collision course with our own vainglorious hearts, hellishly lonely and battered by the same cosmic storms that have tossed Cupid and Eros around the horn of plentitude since time began. Johnston, whose early-to-mid-Eighties output was already the stuff of legend by the time certain current Chronicle music writers blew into town in the spring of 1984, has amassed a reputation bordering on the iconic in the interim, and why not? His heart (and later, his mind) was always there on his sleeve, like a blot of mustard left over from lunch at Mad Dogs & Beans, or like the dust that winkled your nostrils every time you walked into Inner Sanctum Records, an early Johnston supporter. To the uninitiated, expect the lo-fi ambience of the 37 tunes on this 2-CD reissue, Johnston's first recordings, to creep under the eaves of your mind like heart-shaped spiders, spinning webs so peculiar and egregiously wondrous that you won't know whether to laugh, cry, or go mad. Be like Daniel. Do all three.