Each week, Sunday School takes a second look at a classic album worth revisiting years after its release. EMMIE staff handpick releases that shaped a genre, defined a generation or deserve recognition despite being left in the distance. Keep up with Sunday School for your weekly dose of dusted-off classics and throwbacks that merit a second spin.
Hi, How Are You, Daniel Johnston
Good For: Feeling genuine emotions for once, wallowing in loneliness, recovering naivety
Standout Tracks: “Walking the Cow”, “I Am A Baby (In My Universe)”, “No More Pushing Joe Around”
I remember the first time I listened to Daniel Johnston’s Hi, How Are You. I was 16 and very sentimental in my mid-adolescence. I felt an anxiety in that moment in my life that I would grow up and lose my magic or love or the all too precious buoyancy of my youth. I wanted to feel things deeply and my emotions felt both trite and severe. All of the sentiments I was then experiencing are perfectly encapsulated on the lo-fi wonder that is Hi, How Are You.
Daniel Johnston is often presented as a troubled genius. His outsider sound and occasionally salacious lyrics create desperate, introspective songs, and this often leads people to praising a purported “complicated” Johnston. The common narrative surrounding the enigmatic Johnston is that his battle with bipolar depression has contributed in some profound way to his unique yet disturbed sound, and that no one can truly understand something so raw.
However, one can make a pretty strong case that Daniel Johnston is nothing more than a human being struggling with the same trials and internal battles that the everyday laity are subjected to. His scattered, heartfelt lyrics and extreme lo-fi sound resonate with with many who listen to Hi, How Are You as a result.
The first track, “Poor You,” begins with lyrical prose. Johnston’s angsty lyrics lean on the side of self pity, and his hurting is heartbreaking, yet he evokes this emotion with a haunting minimalism. Daniel’s words are accompanied by absolutely nothing. His voice alone pierces into bitter nothing. Johnston’s words drag along in the silence without sparing the listener of any poignancy, and while many of his songs follow this model, there are other tracks that carry a promising note. “Walking the Cow” serves as a slightly more upbeat track, however Johnston’s high pitched and somewhat boyish tone carry on the theme of naivety and doubt. Some of the songs are brief but serve as skits in the Johnston saga. “Nervous Love” is over within 18 seconds, but it creates an understanding of the unrequited love that Johnston feels with the world and the disconnect he has within himself. This is followed immediately by the far more bitter and obsessive “I’ll Never Marry” where the listener is exposed to themes of Johnston’s detachment from ideals that he feels barred from ever achieving.
Hi, How Are You is celebrated by lo-fi fans as being one of the most important albums of the genre and a staple of outsider art. The amount of influence that Johnston has exerted is immense, yet it is difficult to measure the impact in exact terms. Johnston was able to achieve some fame and respect when Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing the cover of Hi, How Are You on a shirt. Many are exposed to Johnston’s ideas unknowingly through countless covers of his songs by popular artists such as Beach House and The Memories. What resonates so strongly with musicians and casual listeners alike is the incredible vulnerability of his music. Living in an increasingly commercialized society can dissociate us from human reality, and I believe that Daniel Johnston’s music delivers something so real that it is terrifying to confront. It is difficult to make an encounter with human weakness and vulnerability, and Hi, How Are You pulls the listener gracefully into that arena whether they are ready or not.