Father John Misty
[Sub Pop, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, July 31, 2012
Listen: “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”
When Joshua Tillman emerged from a Laurel Canyon spider-shack, donning a beard that would make ZZ Top jealous, talking with wide, blood-shot eyes about how he had found his narrative voice and begun writing a novel, and calling himself Father John Misty, many of us slightly raised our eyebrows in skepticism. It seemed to put Tillman’s decision to no longer play drums for Fleet Foxes in a context of erraticism, leaving many of his fans to wonder if he left his mind in that shack along with theempty freezer bag once filled with psychedelics. However, as soon as the Aubrey Plaza-led, manic music video for “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” the first Father John Misty track to see the light of day, emerged, much of the doubt was dispelled, and it was evident that Tillman’s vision might be its most fully realized under this moniker.
The soundtrack to that fever dream of a music video is something so unlike what we have come to expect of Tillman throughout his seven-year music career—after seven-plus records of hushed folk music, the swirling, country psychedelia that comes booming out of the speakers as Plaza rampages and exercises her demons in a party comes as quite the surprise.The lightly picked acoustic guitars of old are replaced by jangling hollow-body electrics, loosely propelled by cavernous drums as Tillman’s narrative voice is on full display. In an interview earlier in the year with No Depression, he spoke on his epiphany on finding that voice, and interjecting it into his musical works. “You have to just be what you are. I realized that I am a smart-ass, and that I have always been a kind of smart-ass. So when I realized that, I realized that I had an obligation to start including my sense of humor and my actual, true, conversational voice in my music in order for it to be exclusive to me, and not to be just my best stab at trying to be a preexisting idea.” As a solo minstrel, Tillman cited his biggest influences as being both Nick Drake and Flannery O’Connor. For Fear Fun, Tillman’s first record as Father John Misty, he replaces the bleak themes and sparse arrangements of his former heroes and replaces them with genuinely fun romps through Americana and stream-of-consciousness lyricism and delivers an outing that’s equal parts Glen Campbell and Allen Ginsberg.
For the record, Tillman assumes the identity of the narrative voice of Father John Misty, and it is seemingly important to distinguish the line that exists between the narrator and Tillman himself. The lyrics reflect a strain of Tillman’s conscience, sure, but the narration going on throughout Fear Fun is of a playful nature. On The album’s opener “Fun Times In Babylon,” he addresses his change in both mindset and in location, singing, “I would like to abuse my lungs / Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved / Ride around the wreckage on a horse in knee-deep blood / Look out Hollywood, here I come.” All across the album there are brilliant turns of phrase with rich, playful imagery such as is on display here. With Fear Fun, Tillman is playing with his words, building an identity for himself—or his character, rather. On “Nancy From Now On,” he cleverly claims that “Every man wears a symbol / And I know I have mine / I’ve got my hand stamped / In the concentration camp where my organs scream, ‘Slow down, man!’” Tillman consistently spins tales on the record that walk a fine line between so bizarre that they have to be true and so bizarre that they just can’t be true. He leaves the listener to either suspend all doubt or take everything he says with a grain of salt.
Much of the record brings with it the pastoral qualities that Tillman has picked up along the road to Fear Fun, from his own endeavors to his days as a Fleet Fox. His lead vocal is pronounced and strong for the entire duration of the record, but on tracks like “O I Long To Feel Your Arms Around Me” and “Now I’m Learning To Love The War,” it serves as a vessel, a boat rocking back on forth on a sea of vocal harmonies. While strong songs, the times when Fear Fun truly shines are when Tillman lets loose a little. “Writing A Novel” is a jaunty rock-a-billy tune that Tillman opens up by singing “I ran down the road, pants down to my knees / Screaming ‘Please come help me, that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!’” It’s moments like this, with Tillman letting his voice fly and step outside of its usually crystal-clear timbre and the instrumentation opening up right alongside it, that the Father John Misty project is at its best.
Perhaps the best example of this is on “Tee-Pee’s 1-12,” a gleefully jangling, psychedelic country rock number that Father John Misty never quite get the reins on, and seemingly never try to. The free-for-all guitar and drum interplay create the most intriguing moments on Fear Fun, blithely intertwining with one another as Tillman displays his mastery for tauntingly funny storytelling, singing “Well you took me to the cemetery to sweat out all my fear / You came across the cosmic serpent with pants rolling into his hair / If he’s my spirit guide / I’m gonna stay inside / I’m never sleeping in a tee-pee again.” While the melodic presence and arrangement of Tillman’s songs are at their best on Fear Fun, it’s the clever lines that bring a smile to the listener’s face and keep the record spinning, day after day.
With “Every Man Needs A Companion,” the final track on Fear Fun, Tillman bears it all, opening up the topic of the change of his musical direction over the top of a crawling, bluesy backdrop. He says, “Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones / Couldn’t give me a myth / So I had to write my own / Like I’m hung up on religion / Though I know it’s a waste / I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J,” exposing the fact that he simply wanted to be a mythologist, to spin tales of his own and get out of the rut he had found himself in making music under his own name. With Fear Fun, Tillman has let his pen run wild, embracing the fact that a good story goes a long way in a song. Furthermore, in loosening up a little, he has adopted the adage that music doesn’t necessarily have to be serious to be taken seriously.