Album: Built To Spill – Plays The Songs Of Daniel Johnston review

By Phil Scarisbrick

In 2017, Idaho native indie rock veterans, Built To Spill were tasked with the honour of being the live backing band for Daniel Johnston. Unfortunately, however, the cult icon passed away aged only 58 before the mooted shows were able to take place. While rehearsing for these shows in August 2018, the band recorded eleven songs as a document of this period and were in the end stages of production on the album when Johnston passed away of natural causes in 2019. What started out as a keepsake for the band has transformed into a touching tribute to one of music’s most interesting characters.

Although Johnston doesn’t feature on the record, the band manage to keep his spirit at the forefront of their versions. Opening track, Bloody Rainbow, evokes a brand of Scouse pop that will no doubt have pleased the Beatles obsessive Johnston. Honey I Sure Miss You manages to maintain the same sense of fragile melancholy of the original, while appearing far more polished than any of its scribe’s work ever did. That is not to say that the record is ever over-produced, far from it, but stands apart compared to Johnston’s largely home recorded cassette originals.

Probably the best known track covered here is Life In Vain. It is a song that could be done a million different ways, but this frenetic version doesn’t veer too far from the original, only adding a heavier, drum-driven sound track. Elsewhere, you have a Pixies-evoking Fake Records Of Rock N Roll that tranisitions into album closer, Fish. As Doug Martsch sings – ‘She’s got me singing with a broken heart/I keep on messing with my mind torn apart‘ – you get the sense that no lyric encapsulates the mind that wrote the collection here more than those two lines.

Although he is no longer with us, there are few artists whose music seems to exist for other people rather than the songwriter themselves. Even from the beginning, Johnston would record mixtapes as one-offs to give to friends and loved ones. The same went for his art, as complex a character as he was, his work was always seemed to be about what he could give rather than take. This collection not only honours that, but will open his music up to a new audience and keep it alive. What started out as something personal to the band has ended up as something much bigger. Along with a new boxset being released later in the year, and apparel endorsements with Supreme and Vans, it seems his music may now be reaching the wider audience it deserves – while still appealing to those who live their life as part of a counterculture. So although Built To Spill never got to play the shows as intended with Johnston, the band are at least able to help cement his legacy with this record.

Secret Meeting score: 77

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