It is still an unfortunate state of affairs that most people know Daniel Johnston for his struggles with mental illness and for a t-shirt that Kurt Cobain liked to wear a lot. Unfortunately, despite the superb documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston bringing his story to a wider audience, his music often takes a back seat.
He began releasing cassettes in the early 1980s, and although he is no longer as prolific, he has excelled himself with this entire Space Ducks project, which comprises this album, a hardback comic book and an iOS app. Space Ducks (the album) is essentially a soundtrack to the comic book Space Ducks - An Infinite Comic Book Of Musical Greatness, although most of the songs don't directly relate to it and there is no narrative structure to the record. The comic book is the culmination of a long held ambition. It has been written and drawn entirely by Johnston, at times child-like and full of humour, as he tells the tale of the Nada Ducks, who are on an intergalactic mission to rescue their girlfriends from Satan.
Only half of the songs are performed by Daniel and his band, the others are given to guests to interpret – all of them do a good job and quite a few of them are superb. In fact this record reminds me a lot of K McCarthy's Daniel Johnston tribute album Dead Dog's Eyeball, and I think what connects them both is Daniel's very adaptable songwriting. At its heart it has a playful sense of pop that Daniel's great heroes, The Beatles, would approve of.
That Beatles influence looms large of course, especially on Daniel's own performances. The strings and guitar solo on 'Sense of Humor' and 'Wanting You' certainly evoke the fab four, although the surprisingly assertive vocal delivery on 'Mean Girls Give Pleasure' hints more towards 'Loser'-era Beck. He sounds more vulnerable on 'Mask', the quivers in his voice familiar from his live shows are there as he delivers lines like "now I'm left pretty dumb and every bit retarded."
Johnston's highlight is the title track, as it attempts to provide some exposition to the Space Ducks tale accompanied by upright piano and synthetic quacking sounds, it builds into a powerful yet whimsical piece of pop music.
The guests steal the show to an extent, a fact which underlines Johnston's skill as a songwriter. Fruit Bats deliver a slice of dreamy psychedelia on 'Evil Magic', whilst 'Come Down' by Eleanor Friedberger sees her gently intoning tender words whilst a trio of guitars entwine in the background.
Even Jake Bugg and Deer Tick, who on paper may appear unusual guests, certainly justify their inclusion. The former with a haunting song 'Man on the Moon' which sits well with Johnston's material, and the latter with a raucous Replacements style piece of power-pop on the 'Space Ducks' theme.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra's 'Satanic Planet' sounds more like them than Johnston. It is based around drum machine and distorted strange vocals, with the guitars just short of wigging out at any moment. They stretch things further and stand out from the rest of the album, and apart from Daniel's title track, it's probably the only song lyrically that fits the comic book story.
The real buried treasure here is Lavender Diamond's 'Moment of Laughter' which is worth seeking this album for on its own. The vocals here are eerily perfect and give the song a lot of gravitas. "I met you in a moment of laughter/ and I don't remember what came after" is a wonderful line and the delivery here elevates it to one of the very best Daniel Johnston interpretations.
Daniel Johnston was always a dreamer, always full of imagination, and it is great to see this whole Space Ducks project coming to fruition. This album is much more than just a comic book soundtrack, and it underlines his under-rated skill as a writer of classic pop songs.