For an artist so stigmatised by outsiderdom, Johnston’s influence is immense. Down the years, his unbearably poignant, no-fi scrapings have tended the souls of Nirvana, Beck, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Yo La Tengo, Butthole Surfers and The Pastels, while more recently David Bowie sprung him a Meltdown invitation. And not forgetting a whole bunch of New York anti-folksters, to whom the man is some kind of godfather.
The Californian’s enduring popularity lies in his perilous mental state and creative sensitivity, which manifests itself in primitive musical outpourings of agony and ecstasy. Johnston creates personal, intimate art that is at once liberating and imprisoning. Almost as though he’s missing a skin, a valuable layer of psychic lagging, life has often been too vivid for Johnston, resulting in a string of hospitalisations. Now, though, on medication and in the safe hands of father/manager Bill, the Texas-based 41-year-old is as prolific and happy as he’s ever been.
Fear Yourself is the result of a week spent with producer/arranger/admirer/Sparklehorse lynchpin Mark Linkous, who fleshes out Johnston’s pounding piano sketches with banks of fuzz guitars, crooked walls of strings and spectral synth washes. As with much of his work, Johnston swallows love’s bittersweet pill then fashions a record as redemptive as it is uncompromising. “Syrup Of Tears” somehow transforms despair into a blinding flash of hope over disjointed slaps of piano, while “Mountain Top” (all chugging guitars and saw-toothed fiddle) and “The Power Of Love” curse cupid himself. At its best, Johnston’s flailing rasp is shockingly intimate and immediate, like a download straight from the cortex. A fierce, defiant record.