His Best Work
by ERIC FARWELL
Prior to the emergence of Father John Misty, Josh Tillman slummed it in indie pop, writing earnest songs about life tinged with slight Judaic-Christian undertones. He briefly toured as a drummer for Fleet Foxes, but struggled to gain any kind of real foothold. Near the end of his career as mere mortal, J. Tillman, on the album Singing Ax, the early seeds of Father John Misty were planted as he moved away from deeper religious undertones and found a slight Freudian bend.
With a slight disconnect, the songs of Father John Misty utilize a hodgepodge mix of jokes, wry honesty, and pseudo-spiritual awareness. Musical structures run the gamut between Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman. In the same way Harry Nilsson’s best songs were, his work, especially his latest output, examines love from a cockeyed angle. The songs on the record, influenced by his then-recent marriage, drag their feet through different aspects of the viscera found within commitment, eventually achieving a half-hearted slacker sense of romance. Eschewing the straight forward proves to be an interesting choice, one that benefits and hinders the tracks. While lyrics like “ Say, do you wanna get married and put an end to our endless regressive tendency to scorn?/ Provincial concepts like your dowry and your daddy’s farm/ For love to find us of all people/ I never thought it be so simple,” may be more cavalier and interesting, they keep listeners from accessing any deep feeling couched within their salon-ready discourses on romance.
The final product and character development is merely a Christmas dressing. There’s an icy detachment as Tillman bears down on dimensions of love, most of which are rote observations that avoid saying much of anything in favor of “trying to say something.” Women aren’t quite objects here, but the imagined female “you” is rendered a bit too on the nose as the now classic quirk fest of a Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig female. In “I Love You, Honeybear,” Tillman ends one verse with “I’ve brought my mother’s depression You’ve got your father’s scorn and a wayward aunt’s schizophrenia.” The song, a dark take on a praise chorus of true romance, never offers stakes for the performer or the subject. Biblical imagery is invoked, sex flashes by, and yet the listener is left asking, “so what?”
Without the subtle visibility of blood and guts, Tillman’s oeuvre creates a distance between the listener and the performer, but more importantly, between the performer and the song. Live, he moves with a feline grace and rockstar pizzazz to really put on a show, before breaking into a dry winking joke about the absurdity of rock musicians. Because of this, the crowd is silent and still, crossing fingers and looking for the chink in the armor that will give way to a real connection. Tillman may have graduated to the big leagues with his posturing, but without the threat of real vulnerability, it might as well be dust in the wind.
Eric Farwell is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New Jersey. This is his first appearance on these pages. He has written for The Rumpus, Electric Literature and Critical Flame.
“I’ve Never Been A Woman” – Father John Misty (mp3)