How One Album Changed My Perspective on Mental Health
Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve done a lot of reflecting. One event that has really sparked this type of deep reflection was the untimely death of Atlanta artist 6 Dogs. Since there have been so many extremely talented artists who have passed away these last few years, coping techniques have been more habitual and helpful. Even so, this death has sat with me and reached an unfathomable depth. 6 Dogs was only a year older than me when he passed away. So, when I analyze this tragedy through the lens of my life or the lives of my friends, there was nothing but endless thought.
In the midst of this reflection, I watched the most recent full-length Noisey documentary, In My Head. This documentary is about the ups-and-downs of the revolutionary cloud rapper Yung Lean. It highlighted many different aspects of Yung Lean’s struggles living with bipolar disorder and how that has affected his career arc. As there were many aspects of the film that had a long-lasting effect on me, one that struck me was actually in an interview with the director after the film was completed. In the interview, director Henrik Burman talked about how Yung Lean related to indie legend Daniel Johnston. Daniel Johnston is a Houston-based indie artist who also lived with bipolar disorder, and his experiences with the disease are very similar to Lean.
While this information was intriguing and piqued my interest, I didn’t further my research into his art because I thought my stubborn, monocentric mind wouldn’t enjoy it. But the day after, the FBI and hackers across the U.S. listened to me talk about it, and magically there was Daniel Johnston’s cult classic Hi, How Are You? in my YouTube recommended page (How does this always happen?? They have to be listening, right?). Even though I usually would skip past something like this, something about the minimalist cover art and the sub-heading of “the unfinished album” really sparked a lot of questions inside of me.
Why would you put an album out that is self-proclaimed as “unfinished”? Is this a collection of demos? Why the fuck is the only thing on the cover a frog?
All of these questions can be answered simply by listening to the album. So, as I do quite often, I grabbed the ol’ headphones, threw that puppy on, and found out what the hell this was about. As the album gradually progressed, my body became more and more frozen. I couldn’t move. I was trapped in a silhouette; a younger, faultless version of myself.
My mind began to melt as Johnston opened the album reciting a poem, with no instrumental, in iambic pentameter. Even though the syllables don’t match up as frequently as a Shakespearean sonnet, Daniel flushed me with a beautiful naivety by doing this. Not a naivety that is ignorant, but a type of naivety that is more innocent than anything; for my literature nerds, I am Basil looking at a pre-portrait Dorian Gray. This inculpability is something I saw in me and in many of my friends in their younger years. It was grounding and sent me into a place I haven’t been to in many years.
He expresses this idea by frequently stressing syllables in a rhythmic fashion like a child narrator relaying the first story they could retain. As some may look at this trait as premature, raw, or even downright discombobulated, I cannot look at this music in that light. This rawness is met by true beauty and leaves me, and many other listeners, in shock.
His voice is as innocent as the perplexed frog on the cover.
Every vocal chord sounded childish, pure, and imaginative. His honesty and creativity are braided into a minimalist formula of keyboard and vocals that left me in sheer awe and inspiration. There is a little goofy sweetness in his voice. This innocence in his voice fertilized my brain with a new mindset and a new outlook on people. It shows how you can achieve greatness with so little, and a little tiny dream is all you need. You can sense a dream, almost reminiscent of what every kid has gone through. This dream doesn’t have to be realistic, but simply a vision. Who cares if it makes sense? We don’t need to be in cohesion the whole time. The world isn’t cohesive all the time. So, why can’t albums reflect this imperfection?
Unfortunately, this imperfectness is laced with the inevitable: pain. Even though his vocals were pure and childish, there is an aura of deep, deep anguish. Anguish that is trying so hard to be masked; a sorrow that poked relentlessly in Daniel’s psyche. It almost sounds like he is on the brink of tears or was just crying before he recorded it. There’s something that haunts him in every track; this brief undertone haunts me at times. As much as I idolize this album, I can only listen to it so often because I can’t refrain from the impending tears to follow.
The reason for this strong emotional connection is written in the honesty I highlighted before. Some tracks are just a few keyboard claps, like Johnston’s exquisite “Walking the Cow.” Some only have a few guitar plucks that sway back and forth from one another like the heartwrenching “Despair Came Knocking.” There are even some tracks that are just thirty-second interludes of introspective thoughts with no instruments, like the authentic “Get Yourself Together” or “Nervous Love.”
By doing this, I feel that I have a deep, enriched connection with the real Daniel and his embraced identity with this album. He calls it the “unfinished album” and he encapsulates this bare, yet multi-layered idea. This “unfinishedness” isn’t a sign of laziness, by any means. He instead adds to the pureness of it with the hazy sonic quality and the silence of outside influence or thought. It reflects that unfinished version of ourselves and the unfinished qualities we wish to have.
As I really gathered my thoughts about this “unfinished” ideology of ourselves, I began to dial into how people look at mental health—especially in artists. From what I have seen through constant art forms such as Josh Ovalle’s beautiful “Minimum Max” and the documentary In My Head is that many musicians struggle with the relationship of prescription medication for mental health and their creative output in correlation with their inner happiness. This struggle is amplified in our braindead societal/medical ideology of “pill intake = better person.”
But what a lot of people do not understand—and what I will only be able to sympathize with—is that many artists and people struggling with mental health feel that when these pills are ingested, they handicap, silence, and squander many of the creativities built deep within them. So, when they are off these pills, their creative output can reach its full potential. This struggle that these beautiful artists are living can only be described as heartbreaking.
If these artists want to express themselves fully and decide to not take their medication, the inevitable will eventually strike—a manic episode. Since we simultaneously live in a media frenzy, once a hungry journalist or the disgusting leeches of TMZ or Daily Mail get a slight whiff of a story like this, they grab it, milk every last bit of the story, and finally paint a picture of these artists as “Psychos” or “Nutjobs.” When in reality, these artists are just battling an internal war with no means of escape.
So, this imminent story blows up and the public DEFINES the artist with this story. And once the public is spoon-fed these short-sighted words like “Psychos” or “Nutjobs,” more and more people only associate these artists with these awfully-limiting words. These artists are so much more than that.