Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
You don’t have to believe in the pulling of critical punches to be dismayed by faint-praise dismissals of Daniel Johnston. Not only because his songs are so plainly his last line of defense, but because they’re good enough not to warrant condescension. The work of the mentally ill often deals in alternative realities, easily romanticized by the blasé listener in search of something “different,” but the world of Johnston’s songs is recognizable as our own. At times, there are adjustments to make, such as when the singer deflates the agonized blues of “Catie” with a hearty belch, or when “My Little Girl” succumbs to Casio-gone-haywire cacophony as Johnston yelps, “Margaret, stop this crazy machine.” But unlike such innocents as the Shaggs, who didn’t even understand the rules they were breaking, Johnston’s musical transgressions are rooted in a knowledge of pop-song form. He breaks rhyme when meaning outweighs music and fractures meter when he’s got something to say that just won’t fit otherwise. At its best, the result is music so thoroughly disarming that it’s a little embarrassing to be moved by it in public. At last Wednesday’s sparsely attended Half Japanese show, after Jad Fair left the stage and the video for Johnston’s “Life in Vain”—easily Fun‘s most poignant and most hummable song—came on the 9:30 Club’s screens, everyone just stood there, hearing Johnston’s call to, as “Psycho Nightmare” puts it, “the lonely looney inside of us all.”