Adrian Crowley and James Yorkston are two singer-songwriters whose careers draw many parallels with each other. First and foremost, they’re cult names with small but dedicated fan bases, however, they have also both received accolades for their work; Crowley clinching the Choice Music Prize’s Irish Album of the Year gong in 2009 and Yorkston’s debut Moving Up Country being crowned Rough Trade’s record of the year for 2002. Both members of of Fence Records’ Fence Collective, they’re masters of their art, with Yorkston offering a more traditional folk ambience and Crowley creating his very own brand of sombre serenades which are punctuated by his voice – reminiscent of a lethargic Charlie Fink and the late, great Lou Reed. However, more importantly and relevant for this piece, they both share an adoration for the enchanting, surreal, weird and wonderful music of Daniel Johnston.
My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs of Daniel Johnston began to materialise back in 2006 when Crowley was invited to play with Yorkston at London’s Barbican. The night in question was a tribute concert called ‘The Devil And Daniel Johnston’. Held to mark the release of the film of the same name (an amazing documentary which details the childhood, rise and the well documented struggles of Austin, Texas’ living legend Daniel Johnston), it also planted the seeds for the album that has now been officially released seven years later.
The release, which is split into two sides, was constructed essentially by post. Adrian from his home in Dublin and James from windswept Fife added parts to the songs using whatever found sounds were available. They both recorded on ancient portastudios and used whatever they found in and around their homes to create the tapestry of the album; some cases include the hawks of a magpie sitting on Adrian’s roof, the whirring of a Super 8 camera, an old games consol and baby-monitors. These inventive additions to the work of Daniel Johnston pay homage to the mythical and brilliant anti-folk hero, but separate themselves enough to grant Crowley and Yorkston their own creative merits.
Opening the release is “True Love Will Find You In The End”. One of Johnston’s early tracks which exhibits the innocence and romanticism of his formative years, it captures the essence of the original whilst changing its shape. Johnston’s fumbled guitar strums and despondent voice, lacking what it sings about, are swapped for a languid piano progression and the sombre vocals of Crowley; altered by off pitch tape delay.
“Held The Hand”, a track created during the peak of Johnston’s struggles with mental illness and period of grand delusions, again captivates the desolation of the original which focuses on the corruption of humanity by Satan, but offers a different construction. The piano is made softer, wind instruments are added and a choir sporadically act as backing vocalists.
Swapping the lo-fi organ recordings of Johnston’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances” are strums from the Irish Bouzouki and the same uplifting message: “Do yourself a favour, become your own saviour”, and “Walking The Cow” offers a fuller, symphonic version to the rapid hammering of Johnston’s DIY keyboard playing, whilst again keeping the raw melancholy inherent.
The LP captures the spirit of the artist steeped in myth and legend whom Crowley and Yorkston are so fond of, but the duo put enough of themselves into it to make it a completely different animal; one which is too be examined for its own individual merits.