Review: Father John Misty’s Fear Fun

Father John Misty: Fear FunFather John Misty: Fear Fun (Sub Pop, 5/1/12)

“Hollywood Forever Cemetary Sings”

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Everyone who wants to see a man rip his arm off and beat himself with it, line up here. It’s opening day for Joshua Tillman’s new act, and he promises some violence as part of the transformation from J. Tillman as Sad-Bastard Acoustic Folk Singer to J. Tillman as Father John Misty, a new moniker for a new style and new album, Fear Fun.

Despite the potential for ugliness and depression in the songwriter’s desire to stop “licking his wounds” and turn his self-deprecation to good use — by inviting us to watch him beat himself senseless — Tillman actually delivers some really funny music. Now there’s Wes Anderson funny, and there’s Paul Thomas Anderson funny. Tillman is kin to the latter. His songs are dark and irreverent and at times pornographic, but they’re also incredibly apt at dissecting life’s bizarre encounters and society’s weird subcultures.

Hollywood, in fact, is a main character in Fear Fun, and it would be easy to imagine Tillman growing up there. He didn’t. He was born in Baltimore, grew up outside Washington, DC, and then moved to Seattle in 2003, which is where he met Damien Jurado and David Bazan and the guys in Fleet Foxes, who asked him to be their drummer in 2008. He accepted but kept writing his own songs, which were slow and stripped down, bare like a hotel bed naked of pillows or blankets.

In January, Tillman left Fleet Foxes and, somewhere along the highway between Seattle and Laurel Canyon, became Father John Misty. Los Angeles and all its gritty, sexed-up, Big Tent attractions became the raw material that Tillman used to assemble songs that are less ruminative and more narrative, and as sharply poignant as Boogie Nights.

“Jee-uh-ee-uh-ee-sus Christ, girl,” Tillman sings in “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” “What are people gonna think? / When I show up to one of several funerals / I’ve attended for grandpa this week / with you / with me / Someone’s gotta help me dig.” After the grave-robbing and fucking — “Maybe we should let this dead guy sleep” — Father John is running down the road, pants down to his knees, “screaming, ‘Please come help me! That Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!’” Later, there’s a line about driving to Malibu, one about being a Dodgers fan, about Howard Hughes. The pathos is especially evident on “Tee Pees 1-12.” “Well, we went to get some work done / so our faces finally matched / The doctor took one look at me and took a skin graft outta my ass / If this is what it takes to take you on a date / I’ll put my member behind glass / If I make it out alive of Hollywood and Vine / I’ll build a cabin up in the Northwest.”

The music, too, sounds like LA. There’s still a lot of acoustic guitar, a lot of big harmonies and big, boomy drums. And the melodies are reminiscent of the retro-folk catalog Tillman was exposed to so constantly for a few years with Foxes. It’s still got a one-man-band feel too, but this loner’s wandering around the desert, not the woods. LA producer Jonathan Wilson no doubt helped narrow the aesthetic to what’s best described as a West Coast country-blues sound, one tinged with gospel and classic rock and 1960s variety shows.

Cursory listens will suggest that Fear Fun is either cutting cultural criticism or participant observation, but there are hints of Joshua Tillman the Person strewn about. “Joseph Campbell / and the Rolling Stones / couldn’t give me a myth / so I had to write my own / I got hung up on religion / though I know it’s a waste / I never liked the name Joshua / got tired of J.” This, from the final song, is about as honest as the music gets. “Every man needs a companion / someone to turn his thoughts to / I know I do.” Hidden behind the weirdness that Tillman so poignantly observes is a portrait of a guy who, like a lot of us, is annoyed by religion and scared of failure and looking for a friend who understands the shit he’s going through.

There’s a lot on his mind, a lot to sort through and comprehend. One of the record’s greatest tracks is “Now I’m Starting to Love the War,” which begins: “Try not to think so much about / the truly staggering amount / of oil / that it takes to make a record / All the shipping, the vinyl, the cellophane, the high gloss / the tape and the gear.” It takes a masterful songwriter to talk about Joseph Campbell and foreign oil without sounding preachy or political, to face head-on the truth of all art’s reliance on the economies it often fights against. It’s evident to Tillman that we’ve passed the point where creating something didn’t also mean destroying something else, and you can see him being buried by this fact. The only way out: write about it.

This is why he needs a companion, and why the line in “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is less funny than it originally sounds. “Someone’s gotta help me dig.” Father John Misty doesn’t want to run and hide from the truth. But he needs to know somebody will be there alongside him.

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