Review: Father John Misty – Fear Fun

 

When talking about his pseudonym, Father John Misty, the former drummer and component of Fleet Foxes, Josh Tillman, paraphrases a quote from Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral: ‘People were standing up everywhere shouting, “This is me! This is me!” Every time you looked at them they stood up and told you who they were, and the truth of it was that they had no more idea who or what they were than he had…They ought to be standing up and shouting, “This isn’t me! This isn’t me!” They would if they had any decency.’ Tillman asserts Father John Misty is “all of me and none of me, if you can’t see that, you won’t get it”.

After boldly leaving Fleet Foxes at the beginning of this year, Fear Fun began gestating during what Tillman has called an “immobilising period of depression” in his former Seattle home.  The album seems to be a symbolic reaction against his realisation that he has used songwriting as a way to lick his wounds, and never as what he knows what it is for: a vehicle for truth, and risk. Tillman has said “I see a lot of rampant, sexless, male-fantasy everywhere in the music around me. I didn’t want any alter-egos, any vagaries, fantasy, escapism, any over-wrought sentimentality…it’s kind of mischievous to write about yourself in a plain-spoken, kind of explicitly obvious way and call it something like ‘misty’.”

Fear Fun consists of such disparate elements as Waylon Jennings, Robbie Robertson and Arthur Russell. His personal liberation is palpable throughout. Only Son of a Ladies Man surges so unexpectedly into life, his voice is striking, it is strong, it never seems to be as I expected – only as a component part of Fleet Foxes’ harmonies, fragile and flimsy alone. Tillman’s drumbeat throughout Fear Fun is a restless shifting thunder that propels his music into life.

Misty’s Nightmare 1 & 2 certainly holds something of The Band era; his grasp of melodic dynamics, his quest for risk and truth is heard in his subtle thundering, constant drumbeat. It is used as a cornerstone, not merely to decorate his songs, but to push them along. There is a discreet funk and soul influence woven into the rootsy fabric of Fear Fun’s general melody.

Nancy From Now On starts out as sparse and murky, before achieving a dizzying, wordless lift-off halfway through. The whole album is so gleefully honest in both its lyrics and melody that it serves to disarm any cynicism you might feel.

The album’s opener Fun Times In Babylon indicates perhaps, Tillman’s reflection upon his age: ‘Fun times in Babylon, that’s what I’m counting on, before they put me to work in a government can…do my face up like a corpse and say get up and dance’. His use of tinkering piano, ghostly backing vocals and an ever-present tambourine beat in his melody here, and like Fleet Foxes, the melody appears to be dripping from the natural, flowing lyrics. They evoke a heart-stopping yearning for and realisation of freedom.

There is a sense of journey and liberty on Fear Fun, as Tillman shakes off the shackles of his immobilising, static depression. He is pressing on, hurtling forth in this album. For all its complexity, Tillman’s lyricism never sounds as if its composition was an agonising process. If being truthful, and free from ‘rampant, sexless, overwrought sentimentality’ produces this, it is best if Josh Tillman keeps at it.

Cat Gough