Underground icon Daniel Johnston has spent a lot of time slightly above ground. From Kurt Cobain wearing his T-shirt to 2005’s documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston, many high-profile entertainers have supported the troubled Texan. Collaborators like Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers and Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse (which once covered Johnston’s “Hey Joe”) have tried to bolster Johnston’s signature aesthetic—fragile, crudely lo-fi, fractured acoustic oddities. Of course, the addition of high-profile collaborators destroyed that aesthetic and erased Johnston’s sad charm. On Is And Always Was, producer Jason Falkner avoids that trap entirely by making a record for Johnston, and not for his fans. Johnston has often spoke of his idolization of The Beatles and desire to make hit pop songs, and that’s what Falkner (who’s worked with Paul McCartney, among many others) delivers, playing many of the instruments on shiny, upbeat tracks and completely ignoring Johnston’s musical past. Is And Always Was is an energetic, accessible album, and while Johnston’s shaky, sluggishly lisped vocals haven’t changed, he uses them confidently. Beatlesque harmonies, clangy guitars, and reverb mark catchy songs such as “Freedom,” the bouncy, light “Queenie The Doggie” and the epic “Light Of Day” in ways sure to disorient fans. But rather than an album to make people like Daniel Johnston, Falkner has made an album for Daniel Johnston to like.

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