'Built To Spill Plays The Songs Of Daniel Johnston' Review: Johnston's covers get a satisfyingly bittersweet uplift

Built to Spill released their 11-track tribute to one of the 'greatest' songwriters, Daniel Johnston, on June 12

                            'Built To Spill Plays The Songs Of Daniel Johnston' Review: Johnston's covers get a satisfyingly bittersweet uplift
Built to Spill (supplied)

American indie rock outfit Built to Spill have released their Daniel Johnston covers album 'Built To Spill Plays The Songs Of Daniel Johnston' on June 12. The 11-track album pays tribute to the late Daniel Johnston and is out via Ernest Jennings Record Co and follows their studio album 'Untethered Moon'.

Johnston, a significant figure in outsider, lo-fi and alternative music circles, was an American singer-songwriter and visual artist whose works has attracted some of the most high-profile fans. Kurt Cobain (who has stated that Johnston was among the “greatest” songwriters, according to Rolling Stone), Flaming Lips, Nick Cave, Eddie Vedder, Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, Beck and more have all honored Johnston, with some sharing their own rendition of covers. The highly respected artist is best known for songs like “Life in Vain,” “True Love Will Find You in the End,” and “Walking the Cow.”

Johnston sadly died in September 2019, from a heart attack at the age of 58. “Daniel was a singer, songwriter, an artist, and a friend to all. Although he struggled with mental health issues for much of his adult life, Daniel triumphed over his illness through his prolific output of art and songs. He inspired countless fans, artists, and songwriters with his message that no matter how dark the day, ‘the sun shines down on me’ and ‘true love will find you in the end,'” his family wrote at the time.

As history plays an important part in our lives during the rather wild year of 2020, Built to Spill's Johnston-inspired tribute about love and life is a fitting release. All its recordings were taken from rehearsal sessions Built to Spill held in 2017 when they joined Johnston on his final tour as his backing band.
According to Rolling Stone, the band recalled the tour and spoke on the new album. “It was pretty special for us,” the band's frontman Doug Martsch said. He added, “Basically we wanted to get good documentation of what our rehearsals were like. It was a lot heavier than what I thought it would be.” Built to Spill also revealed that the covers album was entering its final stages of production last fall, around the time of Johnston’s death.

Daniel Johnston performs during the 2005 South By South West Music Festival March 16, 2005 at The Austin Music Hall in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jana Birchum/Getty Images)

Like most cover albums or songs, the element of interpretation beckons to be considered. In songs like 'Bloody Rainbow', the first track on the new album, it is clear Built to Spill have uplifted Johnston's memorable outsider folk style to another level: a certain celebratory spirit shines through. The original song's untempered sonic resonances have remained, yet transformed into a measure satisfyingly bittersweet. With lyrics like "What a tribulation. There's finally salvation for the dead. It's the good things that they said. We all must have come from the past. Thrilled to the minute," a saddened tone is found in the vocals but is questioned by its own pleasure underlined by the instrumentation: a trick of hidden kindness yielding both doubt and solution.

A similar trend is followed in the cover of Johnston's classic hit, 'Life in Vain', albeit more forthcoming with the joy. The rendition captures the same freeing charm inherent in Johnston's version but is enhanced by a richer recording quality. Additionally, strings found in the original are now swapped for dreamy electric guitar angles, clicking percussion is added and all tick marks should be applied on every aspect of the contemporary version for critiquing fans. 

The fragile ode, 'Heart, Mind And Soul' adopts a Beach Boys-esque theme in the music, appearing more snap-to in rhythm and '60s-romantic in tone. Johnston's sense of tragedy and vulnerability is now altered into Built to Spill's delivery of confidence.

There are moments where lack of variety sees the album's dip a tad, but 'Built To Spill Plays The Songs Of Daniel Johnston' performs on a stage of simplicity and unfiltered thinking. You float in happiness with its music or you don't, but are left to ponder on the lyrics and it's that sort of ambiguity that was Johnston's playground. The new tribute is a highly recommended covers album by Built to Spill. 

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