Daniel Johnston is feeling better these days. Austin's most infamous and prodigious bipolar songwriter has got a real band, a larger-than-ever following and -- thanks to the wonders of modern psychiatric medicine -- a handle on his own mental demons. He's also got a new album, one that finds him careening through a menagerie of styles like some sort of musically ambidextrous, visionary tramp. The now middle-aged Johnston -- who long ago surpassed his initial curio status by consistently making records that were, by varying degrees, more inspired than those of the "sane" artists of the day -- still relies on many of his familiar themes: The confusion of love and girls, the pros and cons of funerals, the supergoodness of God, the desire both to be understood and to party down. Yet Rejected Unknown is both cleaner and more coherent than the albums that first made Johnston a lo-fi hero and unwitting champion of "outsider" music. It's an impressive effort -- catchy, clever and almost normal sounding. Which is part of why it just isn't quite as much fun.
Technically, this disc marks a return to Johnston's indie roots following a brief and woeful foray into major labeldom: His most recent full-length, Fun, was released on Atlantic and proved that Johnston was too vulnerable to the soul-stripping antics of the music industry's big dogs. Rejected is being released as the premiere offering from New York's Gammon Records. But although Rejected Unknown was recorded with a full band at Johnston's home in Waller, Texas -- as well as in the garage of producer Brian Beattie -- it's clear that as Daniel has matured, so have his technical skills and production values. He now sings pretty much on key; his famous nasal falsetto has all but disappeared. His lyrical non-sequiturs have largely given way to straightforward verses and choruses, with some notable exceptions, like this line from "Party": "Up in the morning with the sunshine/As the drama unfolds/And you may find yourself alone with the MAGIC RADIO." The largely self-taught Johnston demonstrated long ago that pop music flows from him like lava, and Rejected provides a vehicle with which to reconfigure some of his more endearing formulas into songs that range in style from carnivalesque (the horn-laden "Funeral Girl") to lush and ethereal ("Dream Scream") to a bit of Beatles-y blues ("The Spook"). Sweet, earnest and totally lacking in pretense, Johnston pulls it all off like the pro that he's become. More power to ya, DJ.
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Longtime fans may pine for Johnston's salad days when -- stowed away with little more than an accordion, an organ or some random toy -- he created songs of pain and joy that brimmed with a brutal honesty and often revealed a kind of accidental wisdom. (There's a veritable bonanza of early recordings now available through emusic.com. Yip, jump!) But there's still plenty of skewed whimsy on Rejected Unknown, like the moment when the delicious, strummy "Devinar" segues, without warning, into the chorus of "Every Breath You Take." Daniel still writes music that comes from a uniquely pure and puzzling place. Now, it's just a little bit easier to tap your toes to it.