Hi, How Are You: A Haunting Exploration of Mental Illness | Teen Ink

Hi, How Are You: A Haunting Exploration of Mental Illness

June 20, 2022
By kathyxu SILVER, Saratoga, California
kathyxu SILVER, Saratoga, California
5 articles 0 photos 0 comments

“Hi, how are you?/ Every morning he got up/ Dreading each moment he had to be awake.”

With these opening lyrics, Daniel Johnston immerses us in the tragic world of his most recognized and equally controversial musical project, “Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album.”

The self-released mixtape, recorded in Johnston's sister's apartment, fosters a hauntingly sweet atmosphere. Johnston’s fuzzy, whimsical vocals and lo-fi instrumentation bring a nursery rhyme-like nostalgia to the songs, with wacky characters and playful dialogue bolstering the presence of childhood naivety in his voice. However, the album’s harrowing lyricism twists the arm of its otherwise innocent ambiance. With songs ranging from anxiety to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia, “Hi, How Are You” epitomizes Johnston’s lifelong struggles with mental illness. 

Recorded in impromptu snippets in the midst of a nervous breakdown, the album reflects Johnston’s mental state at its most intense. In the opening track “Poor You,” the artist grimly intones his failure to communicate his struggles with depression to others: “No one understands you/ Poor you, poor you.” Reminiscent of the goofy alien on the album cover, Johnston longs for open ears and acceptance, but time and again he finds himself alienated, looked down upon, and cast aside with little but a disingenuous glance of pity. 

“Hi, How Are You” doesn’t follow a linear path to recovery, like the black-and-white portrait of mental illness often seen in mainstream media. Johnston’s mental state fluctuates throughout his pieces: In “I am a Baby in My Universe,” the singer relishes in the fleeting ecstasy of youth, an ardent surge of confidence that entirely crumbles by the next track. This instability iterates throughout the album: songs like “Walking The Cow,” “Hey Joe,” and “No More Pushing Joe Around” exhibit a level of hope and positivity, whereas “Despair Came Knocking,” “Running Water,” and “Desperate Man Blues” evince acute displeasure with life and its burdens. Nonetheless, the work is unified by an inescapable presence of mental unwellness. A heavy sheath of melancholia envelopes every optimistic lyric, dampening the peaks and troughs of the roller coaster of emotions that the artist experienced in the creation of this album. 

Johnston’s timeless project depicts mental illness with a rawness unseen in the music industry. His honest, vulnerable lyrics coupled with messy production strike relatable with listeners who’ve experienced depression and evoke empathy from those who haven’t. The response to this record is nothing short of polarized; understandably so. Listening to it is not a ‘pleasant’ experience, by any means. “Hi, How Are You” throws listeners under the unrelenting chokehold of depression, featuring strong themes of self-pity, regret, alienation, and despair. Yet by bringing the hymns of hope and heartbreak into harmony, by pulling back his sleeve to reveal the scars dotting his skin, Daniel Johnston offers us a more than sincere response to the question: Hi, how are you?

The author's comments:

This piece is a pretty short review I wrote in my notes app a few months ago about an album that's very special to me. Daniel Johnston conveys his struggles with mental health in such a spectacular manner, his unfiltered emotions and quivering voice giving his depression and heartache a palpable presence. I regard this project as a must-listen for every music enjoyer—whether they find the content relatable or not—because it's just so artistically and emotionally powerful.

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