There comes a time in every hipster’s life when he or she must claim ownership of the newest “big thing” and speak the inevitable words: “I was into that band before they were famous.”
Joshua Tillman’s new project, Father John Misty, might not have blown up enough to fit the bill yet, but I can’t help but feel that my time has come to rise up to this occasion.
Tillman, who left his gig as the drummer for indie-folk giant Fleet Foxes in January of 2012, has released eight albums of solo folk material under the name J. Tillman since 2004 — material that seemingly reached less people than it would’ve taken to sell out a coffee shop. When a friend first turned me on to the album Cancer and Delirium in 2008, I was a junior in high school and Tillman was a tall, quiet demigod with shoulder-length locks and one of the burliest beards ever to escape Seattle. In the years since, I’ve always wondered why more people weren’t smitten with his sound. His sparse western folk tended toward moodiness, but it boasted a strong voice delivering even stronger lyrics. What wasn’t to love?
Enter: California. After a period of debilitating depression, Tillman packed up his van with what he has called “enough mushrooms to choke a horse,” and headed down the coast to the Golden State, eventually settling in a shack in Laurel Canyon. The change of scenery apparently did wonders for Tillman, whose newfound narrative voice tackles the hedonism and fakery of Hollywood with tongue-in-newly-shaven cheek lyrics on Father John Misty’s debut for Sub Pop Records, Fear Fun. Now he has released “real” music videos and even played on Letterman — Tillman has gone Hollywood.
The new moniker has brought with it a new energy. Tillman seems eager to abandon the dim of his past records, which he recently conceded were probably difficult for an audience to connect with, “unless you’re alone in the pitch-black dark, listening to headphones with, like, a human skull with a candle on top of it.”
In stark contrast, Fear Fun runs rampant with biting satire, absurd humor and psychedelic non-sequiturs. Musically speaking, it’s more upbeat and folk-pop-inclined, more instrumentally fleshed out than any of his previous work, and still manages to maintain his signature vocal strength.
The album begins with a silky reverb-laden melody on “Funtimes in Babylon,” where Tillman as Father John Misty compares the biblical city to modern Hollywood in terms of sheer self-indulgence: “I would like to abuse my lungs / Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved / Ride around my wreckage on a horse knee-deep in blood / Look out, Hollywood, here I come.” Straight after that, Tillman moves to a smoky disco vibe with “Nancy From Now On.” From that point forward, he fluctuates between the absurdly tragic and the tragically absurd.
Tillman proves that his tenure as a “Fleet Fox” was no mistake, showcasing his genius for vocal harmonies on tracks like “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” and “Only Son of the Ladiesman.” The latter is a mock-epic chronicle of the shallow exploits of a Los Angeles lady-killer following in his father’s footsteps. Lines like “Someone must console these lonesome daughters / No written word or ballad will appease them,” and “I’m a steady hand / I’m a Dodgers fan” make for a hilariously straight-faced insight into the life of a Don Juan. “Only Son of the Ladiesman” may be the record’s high point, skillfully balancing musicianship and lyrical wit.
Present for the first time ever on a solo Tillman record is a notable Beatles influence. “I’m Writing a Novel” flows like “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (on more modern hallucinogens), and could possibly serve as a nod to “Paperback Writer.” The song “This is Sally Hatchet” practically wears a Sergeant Pepper’s shirt, oozing through unconventional chord progressions with high-treble lead guitar and Lennon-esque lines like “Sally Hatchet lives in a hole in the ground / The longer it keeps raining, the more she has to struggle to maintain a wonderful time.”
The closest song to a single from the album, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” separates itself by its simple rock influence, featuring loud and crunchy drums but considerably less instrumentation than other tracks. Based on his grandfather’s funeral, this track alone sounds like it might have made it onto an old J. Tillman record, aside from its pace.
Lyrically, Tillman seems to turn toward the serious in just two songs on the record. The first, “Now I’m Learning to Love the War,” comments half-humorously on the “truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record,” but then sobers up in the face of death: “When it’s my time to go / Gonna leave behind things that won’t decompose.” The album’s final track, “Everyman Needs a Companion,” also waxes somber. One verse explores the romance potentially felt by Jesus, while another touches on Tillman’s own restlessness: “I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J.”
On the whole, Fear Fun is appropriately titled, ranging from dim fright to frantic hilarity and covering most things in between. It wears the mask of a debut and yet is undeniably the glorious breakthrough of a folk veteran. It promises a future of outlandish beauty from Father John Misty, and — hopefully — will also provide a bit of “indie cred” for yours truly.