Adrian Crowley & James Yorkston – My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston
Genius to some. Unlistenable to many. Daniel Johnston is the epitome of lo-fi. Almost childlike vocals and rudimentary instrumentation. Innocent, yet knowing and mature observation. Listening to a Daniel Johnston album can be like eavesdropping on every day scenes of domestic life with some music thrown in for good measure. And all captured on a battered old cassette deck. Adrian Crowley and James Yorkston are not the first to pay tribute to the songs of Daniel Johnston. Previous efforts, though, have been collections of various artists. Here, the timbre, the pace, the voices are wonderfully coherent. There’s a nod to the lo-fi aesthetic of their subject. The noise of the tape is sometimes audible. Some of the vocals are deliberately unreconstructed. But the beauty of this album is that the seemingly off-the-cuff, often amateurish-sounding originals have been turned into true, real, proper, full-blown songs. This doesn’t mean that they’ve been swamped with musicality. The instrumentation is still relatively sparse. The melodies remain very gentle. But they’ve been given the space to emerge. To exist as undisputed songs rather than what sometimes seem to be throwaway sketches. Nowhere is this seen more effectively than in the title track itself. There’s a charming quality to Daniel Johnston’s version. And compared to many of his other recordings, it’s a relatively well polished performance. Yet by most standards it’s still very rough. Here, James Yorkston sings the lyrics very carefully, touchingly. Behind the vocals, the music builds, yet never overwhelms. The result is memorable, and not least because against this backdrop the beauty of Daniel Johnston’s own words are also allowed to emerge. This is probably a once-off project. But there is space for more. Daniel Johnston may be a frustrating artist for many people, but he has been incredibly prolific. Within that body of work there are more gems. Some of them are already recognised. But others would benefit greatly from the way in which Adrian Crowley and James Yorkston could transform them.