Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Father John Misty

A longstanding paradox when considering artistic endeavors is that an artist or performer will often assume an alternative identity in order to convey the thoughts, feelings and ideas that are actually central to their real persona. This has been the case from writers like Mark Twain to contemporary rock artists to U2's Bono and any number of British musicians who cultivated a stage name (Reginald Dwight, Gordon Sumner, etc) that led them to widespread fame. While we don't know whether such popular acclaim ultimately finds this week's profilee – Joshua Tillman, known now by his alter ego, Father John Misty – his journey of personal revelation to his audience is well-served by his first release under the new moniker, Fear Fun, out last April 30 on Sub Pop Records.

Fans of the indie folk-rock act Fleet Foxes may recognize Tillman's name, as he served as that group's drummer from 2008 through the beginning of 2012. But before – and during – that tenure, he released a series of seven solo albums – along with a handful of EPs – under his given name. While Tillman was a talented musician, his material was too intentionally earnest and as a result, not very interesting. At the same time, Tillman would receive feedback from his small live audiences that his on-stage persona was far more engaging than what he had dedicated to record to date.

Following the most recent Fleet Foxes tour – which ended last January – Tillman thanked the band for the gig and re-purposed himself as Father John Misty, a songwriter, musician and performer more committed to fully expressing his true self via music. The result is the dozen tracks of quirky folk-rock displayed on Fear Fun.

Fitting comfortably in the country-tinged, folk-rock territory first explored by the likes of George Harrison and Gram Parsons and encountered frequently today through acts like Southeast Engine (NMT, NMT), Telegraph Canyon (NMT), Lost in the Trees (NMT) and The Head and the Heart (NMT) – with a touch of the witty pop sensibilities of a Butch Walker (NMT) or Jonathan Coulton (NMT) – Tillman's Father John Misty material is smart, interesting and honest, the result of his successful mission to rediscover himself, which he admits is occasionally colored by the mind-altering influences of psychedelic mushrooms. This most outward expression of this effort is the record's closing, dusty-trails ballad, "Every Man Needs a Companion." After exploring the friendship between Jesus Christ and John the Baptist – Tillman's perspective on spirituality is unclear as the album unfolds – he relates his own struggle with his identity:

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

Elsewhere, the collection has a couple standout numbers that reflect Tillman's new found lightheartedness in uptempo formats. "I'm Writing a Novel" is certainly the album's finest product, a spirited blend of Appalachian folk – akin to much of Southeast Engine's catalog – with a oddball narrative that's evident from the number's opening stanza:

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!"
And I'm writing a novel because it's never been done before

It's a surreal narrative, one likely influenced by his psychedelic experiences, and is a fitting compliment to the record's absurd cover art, which lies somewhere between a depiction of George Harrison-esque mysticism and a Katy Perry video:

Later on, the tawdry countrified foot-stomper, "Tee Pees 1-12" is likewise a delightfully similar mess of unlikely events and goofy self-discovery, and is the sort of stuff the Father John Misty character is most comfortable in dealing. 

The album's real problem is there's too many mid- to slow-tempo numbers here. My general preference is a 3-2-1 apportionment of uptempo cuts to mid- and slow-paced songs. Here, Tillman offers something closer to a 1-3-2 distribution, with the previously mentioned, joy-filled romps really the only briskly-paced fare on the compilation. Sure, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" is noisy with its grainy electric guitars – a rarity on this record – and the drums are heavy with rattling cymbals, but it doesn't really get going at any point. 

Of course, this imbalance doesn't mean any of the songs are particularly bad themselves. Opener "Fun Times in Babylon" provides an interesting table-setting perspective, and "Only Son of the Ladiesman" is quirky without a hint of hubris or pretension that might be found if, for example, John Mayer were to write the same song. Meanwhile, "This Is Sally Hatchet" is unmistakably Beatles-driven, with its punchy piano and jagged guitar,  and "Misty's Nightmares 1 & 2" could be pulled directly from the Gram Parsons playbook. It's all fine stuff, but there's just too much of the same all in a row. At the same time, no individual track is worthy of banishment, but rather would be nice if they were part of a larger portfolio over the course of several albums of more uptempo material. Perhaps that's something Tillman can work on, after so confidently establishing a new direction for his career.

Come for: "I'm Writing a Novel"
Stay for: "Tee Pees 1-12"
You'll be surprised by: "This Is Sally Hatchet"

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