Listening to Daniel Johnston is a lot like playing a game of Fill in the Blanks. The core melodies and the song’s basic structure are there, and so too is Johnston’s passion – be it for Laurie, alongside Casper the Ghost and Joe the Boxer, or against Satan. But, if you listen closely to Johnston’s ramshackle lo-fi recordings, lovingly released on dubbed cassettes, you can hear Beatles-level ear-worms and, if you listen closer, still, a symphony. It’s all there; you just have to seize it. Even posthumously, that remains part of the wonder of the “pure” yet disturbed king of Outsider Art: he created music so primal and so full of bumps and cracks (and tape hiss) but tunes that also were tenderly composed and bizarrely pristine.
Built to Spill are no group of hacks. The revolving cast has been releasing good records since 1992. But, on their new LP, Built to Spill Play the Songs of Daniel Johnston, the group sadly fill in the wonder-filled cracks of Johnston’s work with the kind of cookie-cutter guitar pop that’s miles removed from the source.
On its own, the 11-song record is muted but sometimes engaging, if a little bit heavy on the monochromatic side of things. Opener “Bloody Rainbow” and “Tell Me Now”, the second song, set the stage well with jangly, undistorted electric guitar, a plainly recorded rhythm section (here: Jason Albertini and Steve Gere), and the Buddy Holly-esque oohs and uh-ohs of frontman Doug Martsch. For all the varied textures of Johnston’s work – never mind his switch from keyboard to acoustic guitar leads – the group, sadly, returns to this formula ad infinitum.
There are a few exceptions: the vibrancy of the Shins-ish and way-too-short “Good Morning You” and the playful Weezer distortion of “Fake Records of Rock n Roll”, with its unusual but beautifully unhinged closing. However, the record finds a rut and sticks to it, which is the sort of thing that’s amazingly antithetical not only to Johnston’s catalog but also to his spirit. It’s sort of like paying tribute to someone who JUST wrote guitar pop in plain 4/4 time. It’s not inspired, it’s flat.
What’s surprising about this is that Martsch and company should know better. Three years ago, Built to Spill were invited to play a few shows as Johnston’s back-up band. Although this LP was recorded in 2018, Johnston died a year later and never lived to see this project released. Luckily, he did live to hear The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, a 2004 tribute with an eclectic cast of characters re-imagining his work. He even appeared on the cover next to a “Daniel Johnston” tombstone, 15 years before his death. There, TV on the Radio offered pounding piano refrains and wonderfully atypical harmonies in a take on “Walking the Cow”, and Tom Waits bellowed and roared while doing “King Kong”. They were covers, yes, but the artists owned the delivery and sounded like they were having a blast doing it.
On Built to Spill Play the Songs of Daniel Johnston, Built to Spill sadly suck most of the vitality and marrow from Johnston’s occasionally vexing compositions. As a backing band yielding to the whims of a great songwriter, yes, this material would’ve worked in 2017. As an homage, a Built to Spill performance sans the charged Johnston, it’s pretty lackluster. – Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, April 28, 2020