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"Space Ducks"

Daniel Johnston – Space Ducks
22 April 2013, 08:59 Written by Michael James Hall

In a career that has spanned more than 30 years and seen more than 20 full-length releases as well as various dalliances with the likes of Yo La Tengo and Jad Fair, Daniel Johnston has, strangely, been more consistently well known for how beloved he is to other musicians than for his own output.

His first exposure to many was in the form of a t-shirt worn by Kurt Cobain bearing the Hi, How Are You? album cover image; many know him from the seemingly endless stream of tribute albums created in his name, more from the documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston. That postmodern curiosity aside, there’s something that sticks in the craw about the way Johnston is received (and nothing at all to do with his work). He’s been famed for, and made notorious by, his twin mental illnesses of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and his frankly brilliant work seems to be treated as something of an afterthought.

Space Ducks is perhaps the best thing Johnston has released since 2004’s The Late Great Daniel Johnston, and, like a small-scale version of that celebrity-packed album, it’s an even split of Johnston performing his own work and loyal fan bands playing the rest. Surprisingly, for something that almost promises to lack cohesion, it really gels – perhaps more by accident than design. What truly shines? Johnston’s astonishingly adaptable songwriting.

On Deer Tick’s version of the title track (entirely different to the Johnston-performed opener) you get a Replacements-like rampage of rock ‘n’ roll that’s sloppy, grinding and strangely reminiscent of some moments from Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion 2. Deer Tick, being roundly awful in real life, here manage their best offering to date – Johnston’s writing standing up to a right old hammering;

Eleanor Friedberger’s country-sad take on ‘Come Down’ breathes sexy, life-lusting heat into a pally invitation to shared misery. It’s a great drugs song because it accounts for the whole of the drug experience in equally bleak and alternately positive terms. “Drink apple juice, eat coffee cake when we’re awake/Then at night get high again… I’ll kiss you until you say when” – it’s a simple, memorable beauty.

There’s the Nebraska-era Springsteen of Fruit Bat’s ‘Evil Magic’ with it’s brilliant Boss sign-off “there’s evil magic in every heart”; and Lavender Diamond’s hymnal ‘Moment of Laughter’, a beautiful, sunlit, slow and simple path to Johnston’s genius. You’d never expect one of his ragtag McCartney-inspired compositions to sound this ancient, clear, sonorous, glorious.

That’s where the record doesn’t entirely succeed: with Johnston performing half the songs – he’s not much for performance and, as ever, it shows. While in creating music for interpretation by and with others he’s practically peerless, Johnston sometimes doesn’t cut himself an even break allowing tracks like the clumsy, contrived psych of ‘Sense of Humor’or the clichéd, nearly creepy ‘Mask’ to come off as tired, predictable, and slobberingly indebted to Johnston’s ongoing Beatles obsessions.

However, there are moments of sublime joy here from the Austin, Texas native.

‘Mean Girls Give Pleasure’ is a stoned slink of a song boasting a beguiling rap (you heard) from the man himself including such choice observations as “All of your dreams are probably pretend” and “You’re already dead” that also has a half-asleep guitar line that’ll sweep you off your feet and tuck you up in bed if you give it half a chance.

There’s also the string-led glory of ‘Wanting You’ which boasts the best Teenage Fanclub chorus never written by Norman Blake which soars as high as the superhero it namechecks. You can hear in just one song where Conor Oberst borrowed his faltering falsetto and Jonathan Donahue formed his fake mystic twang. The emotion on show here is true, explicit and celebratory though rather than forced and faux-spritiual.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing here, among an embarrassment of them, is the opener, Johnston’s ‘Space Ducks’. It’s a cartoon show-great hurdy gurdy stomp through a “war in outer space” via Texas and the ghost of Zappa. That it has spawned a comic book and an app should be of no surprise – a glimpse at the cover of the record will indicate to you just how bizarre and charming an idea it is.

Johnston has made and most importantly shared a very good record here, one that stands as a reminder of his immense talent, of his longevity, of his kindness in spreading the benefit of his skill among younger, adoring fan-bands and yes, if you must, his power to overcome those much discussed mental problems. But the focus should be kept away from such over-personalised scrutiny, kept away from patronisation – let’s just stand back, look at and listen to an astounding body of work and, on the 30th anniversary of the release of his beloved Hi How Are You?, just say “What a f*cking awesome contribution this artist has made”.

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