At 42, Daniel Johnston still struggles with mental illness, but if Grammys went to songwriters who valiantly fight to exorcise demons, he’d have a closet full. Kurt Cobain publicly praising him on several occasions and college DJs regularly spinning his records haven’t moved Johnston out of his parent’s basement. So The Late, Great Daniel Johnston aims to introduce his music to the masses while raising money to help his parents purchase the house next door, where he can live somewhat independently.
Of the 18 covers on the double CD’s first disc, only a couple are duds: Tom Waits’s exaggerated vocals and overblown background hollers reduce “King Kong” to a cartoon, and monotoned Calvin Johnson seems to read “Sorry Entertainer” off a cue card. But Vic Chessnut sings from the deepest, darkest part of himself, and his delicate, mournful guitar work makes clear he understands “Monkey in the Zoo” ‘s isolation. Guster’s bright piano lines and sublime harmonies levitate the hopefulness buried within “The Sun Shines Down on Me.” Other creative renditions are offered by Clem Snide, M. Ward, Eels, Gordon Gano, Beck, and Sparklehorse with the Flaming Lips.
The second disc contains Johnston’s versions, including some early, ultra-raw stuff recorded to a bedroom boombox, while singing his heart out and pounding away at an old chord organ. They’re heartbreaking and edgy, yet courageously optimistic—like the man himself.