Unlike a lot of performers whose earliest musical experience involved playing a bunch of shows nobody saw with a handful of local bands, when Freedy Johnston began writing songs, he bought a four-track cassette machine and began working up his compositions by his lonesome, which might have something to do with why his formative work doesn't betray much in the way of outside influences. The Way I Were: 4-Track Demos 1986-1992 compiles home recordings of (mostly) previously unheard Johnston compositions from a few years before his 1990 debut album, The Trouble Tree, up to the recording of his critical breakthrough set, 1992's Can You Fly, and it sounds like the long-lost companion to Johnston's gloriously odd and oft-overlooked introduction. Displaying a goofy sense of lyrical surrealism and a childlike joie de vivre, The Way I Were picks up from where songs like "Nature Boy" and "Fun Ride" off The Trouble Tree came from, and while only a fool would argue against the more mature work Johnston produced on Can You Fly and This Perfect World, this set will remind listeners why they were so taken with The Trouble Tree when it first arrived. As Freedy dusts off New York City in anticipation of a visit from his girlfriend, covets the Madonna tickets and 100,000 guitars he's getting for his birthday, or revels in a beautiful woman's traffic tickets, you sense no one would have written the songs quite this way, and their slightly twisted glee is a beautiful and charming thing to hear. And while the hired hands he brought to the sessions for his "real" albums may have had more in the way of chops, the compact arrangements and surprisingly intelligent thumbnail production reveal that the strength of Johnston's vision wasn't limited to his songwriting. Would that every songwriter had juvenilia as strong and as entertaining as what Johnston has unearthed on The Way I Were.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming