When Daniel Johnston, the famously unbalanced "outsider music" star, paired up with the famously troubled auteur Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, the result could have ended up twice as wispily alienated as the product of either artist working separately. Fortunately, Linkous's crystalline aestheticism has never left him, even in the darkest dredges of addiction -- which is what drew him to the mentally ill recluse Johnston in the first place. As a result, "Fear Yourself" is a triumph of commercial chops -- well, semi-commercial -- over the camp allure of the inaccessible. At the same time, it is incontrovertibly a dispatch from Bizarro World, but of a peculiarly lucid and moving kind.
Johnston sings 12 of his own songs, playing piano and guitar as well on tracks recorded at David Lowery's Virginia studio; Linkous and an engineer give the songs bulk and expression with synthesized orchestration that never commits the pathetic fallacy of matching the singer's emotional tone with heart-tugging arrangements. Johnston's pained, humble songs are eerie and sensuous, emotionally textured in a way that demands only amplification, and Linkous's vintage box of tricks suits the songs beautifully.
After 20 years of making records (beginning by recording on a boombox and selling cassettes from his parents' home, where he still lives), Johnston has not adapted karaoke slickness to his singing. He has a marked, juicy lisp, and his phrasing often fights the music, particularly on "Forever," in which a syncopated piano riff limps behind the lyrics. His simple, finely constructed songs adapt easily to the traditional instrumentation designed for them: "Love Not Dead" races along with garage-pop propulsion, while "The Power of Love" billows into majesty over its heavily orchestrated six minutes, and "You Hurt Me" warrants only a light sonic wash over its thumped soft-rock piano chords and Johnston's almost painfully naive singing. Longtime fans can hear the benefits of Linkous's arrangements in the first track, which presents the original recording (faint, scruffy; the guitar sounds like a ukulele) of "Now" alongside a new version. In the latter, Johnston's voice is deeper and less mannered, and the pace of each verse slowed to push off from a lingering Mellotron chord.
Outsider music, a catch-all term for music that doesn't fit the traditional pop parameters of structure, lyric intelligibility, commercial viability or even basic sanity, isn't as far from the mainstream as it used to be, and Johnston is arguably the form's best-known representative. His songs have been featured in everything from a Target commercial to a modern-dance suite, and his last album, 2001's "Rejected Unknown," did respectable business.
Whereas most outsider artists are either nutballs who don't realize how hilariously untalented they are or simply insane people making insane art, Johnston is a canny and professional songwriter trying to create amid bouts of crippling delusions and asylum stretches. He writes about love and selfhood, and the difficulties in reconciling one with the other, a particularly poignant problem for someone whose selfhood is being constantly challenged or erased by his own brain. So it's traditional pop balladeering and a little sad when he sings "You smile on my poor suffering soul" but downright tragic when he states -- the rough edges of his boyish voice on full display -- "I walk a mile in my shoes."
"Fear Yourself" is not easy listening, but its off-kilter pop harbors the surface pleasures of good music as well as a deeper testimony to the indomitable creative drive.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)