Daniel Johnston (& Friends) – Space Ducks Soundtrack (Feraltone)
Austin’s lo-fi legend goes multimedia and releases some of his most rewarding music yet in the process. Glenn Airey ducks for cover.
If you’ve ever watched Jeff Feuerzeig’s acutely revealing, award-winning documentary ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’, or indeed spent any time exploring Daniel’s expansive and complex body of music and visual art, you’ll be in no doubt about the centrality to his work of the apocalyptic yet everyday battle between the forces of good and evil. Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost and even Dan himself are regularly to be found therein, socking it to Satan and confounding his knavish tricks on behalf of all mankind. This heroic axis of goodness is now joined by Daniel’s latest creations the Space Ducks, in an ‘infinite comic book of musical greatness.’ The interactive comic is accompanied by an iOS App and a soundtrack LP. With all due respect to the high-tech bells and whistles, it’s the music that should interest us the most. Daniel, after all, is the fragile, enigmatic talent behind such enduring lo-fi classics as Speeding Motorcycle, True Love Will Find You in the End, Funeral Home and Tears, Stupid Tears. The guy’s made a massive contribution and it’s a pleasure to report that the musical component of Space Ducks is well up to standard.
As on other ‘recent’ Johnston albums like 2006’s Is and Always Was, the lo-fi tag is actually rather misleading in terms of this project. The instrumentation and arrangements are full-bodied and inventive, helping to bring out the best out of some exceptional melodies fit to stand comparison with those of Dan’s lifelong idols, the Beatles. In fact, a good dollop of the Fabs’ music hall merriment drives both the introductory title track and the following American Dream. Then, as if to counterbalance the McCartney knees-up influence, next track Sense of Humor brings to mind Lennon in his early, reflective solo prime. Daniel’s vocals are something of an acquired taste, for sure, but if you’ve made it this far into the journey then you’re probably among the ranks of those who value character over technique, honesty over certainty. The performances here are true to form, and a more forgiving recording set-up no doubt helps to smooth out the ravages of time on this uniquely vulnerable voice.
Working through the album, it soon becomes clear that Daniel’s thoughts haven’t been entirely dominated by the adventures of intergalactic waterfowl. Hell, whose are? Familiar lyrical themes inevitably emerge: good versus evil, of course, along with Daniel’s other great obsessions, his steadfast devotion to the unattainable girl of his dreams and the sweet agony of unrequited love. Such matters have always seemed fundamental to Daniel’s songs, never more so than in the archetypal and self-explanatory Mean Girls Give Pleasure, included here. The bi-polar artist has been in some dark places, as we know, but it’s his determination to overcome these very personal devils that makes his work so heartfelt, rich and compelling.
Daniel enjoys a unique, practically legendary status among his fellow musicians. David Bowie declared himself a fan. Kurt Cobain described him as ‘the greatest songwriter on earth’ and never seemed to take off that bloody ‘Hi, How Are You?’ t-shirt. When your songs have been covered by Tom Waits, Beck, Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips among many others, it’s fair to say your peers have saved a seat for you at the top table. So, fittingly, a number of other fine acts have jumped at the chance of involvement in the Space Ducks project and contributed some excellent material to the soundtrack.
I’d never particularly thought of myself as a Jake Bugg fan but, to be fair to the Nottingham jangler, his Man on the Moon shines in this context like a charming little celestial fragment, while the Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s equally cosmic Satanic Planet ticks away like a bedroom Neu! Die Mason Die contribute perhaps the classiest cut with their lush, layered My Favourite Cave, although Lavender Diamond run them close with the gorgeous, Mazzy-esque Moment of Laughter. The Fiery Furnaces’ esteemed Eleanor Friedberger (whose terrific second solo LP is currently a must-hear, by the way) offers up the typically beautiful Come Down, while my own pick of the bunch comes from Rhode Island’s magnificent Deer Tick and their rollicking, Stonesy tribute to the glorious ducks in space, ‘fighting tooth and nail’ to save us, apparently. Great song, lads, but you really need to watch some David Attenborough programmes.
To summarise, Dan Fans will find plenty here to delight them and the album also serves as a fun way to round up another half dozen current indie acts well-deserving of your attention. Get it on CD or download or, if you’re quick, there are probably still a few copies of the limited Record Store Day vinyl version knocking about. I found one recently at the excellent Folk Devils shop in Whitby, of all places, and although it’s shorn of a few guest tracks including Jake and Eleanor, you get a download code for the whole shebang. It’s a very welcome reminder of just how idiosyncratic and talented Daniel Johnston is. He’s definitely one of the good ducks. And the good ducks always win, don’t they? In the comic books, at least.
To order ‘Space Ducks: An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness’, written and drawn by Daniel Johnston, click HERE.