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7 April 2022

Father John Misty’s ego problem

Debates about the artist’s navel-gazing brand have often eclipsed his songwriting, but his new album escapes the shadow cast by his persona.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Father John Misty, Josh Tillman said in a now-infamous live radio interview in 2016, is “not a character to me. It’s just a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a T-shirt.”

The interview, given to Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio 6 Music, is painfully awkward. In it Tillman is sarcastic and unforgiving. He mocks Maconie and Radcliffe’s line of questioning, and their interview style. “I’m making you flustered,” he tells Maconie at one point. When Maconie disagrees, Tillman continues, “There is nothing more flustering you can say to someone than ‘I’m making you flustered’, right?”

A year later Tillman accepted the blame for the encounter, referencing his substance-abuse problems. Still, he remained snarky. “I’ve got these lizard men with English accents doing this Laurel-and-Hardy act on me and I just couldn’t deal with it,” he told the Guardian. The romantic illusion of Father John Misty – a name and musical premise that, as he often claims in interviews, came to Tillman during a mushroom trip half way up a tree in Big Sur, California – was a fallacy. He was a real person after all: a bratty and stubborn one.

Tillman, 40, was born into an evangelical family in Maryland and moved to Seattle aged 21. He released eight tepid folk albums as J Tillman between 2003 and 2010, and from 2008 to 2012 he drummed with the indie group Fleet Foxes. Then, aided by psychedelics, he realised he could marry dry humour to his knack for a delightful melody, and Father John Misty was born. Fear Fun, his first album released under the pseudonym and the first record to show off his skill as a lyricist and musician, was released in 2012. 

Since then discussions of Tillman have circled around the question of how genuine he is. “The indie-rock provocateur says he wants to be ‘authentically bogus rather than bogusly authentic’,” reads the subtitle of a 2017 New Yorker interview. Of course, he has in turn reflected on the media’s obsession with who he really is in his songs. “She’s like, ‘Oh great, that’s just what we all need / Another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously,” he sang on “Leaving LA” (2017), a self-indulgent, navel-gazing song that lasts 13 minutes, and even describes itself as a “ten-verse chorus-less diatribe”.

The question became: how long could Tillman keep this knotty shtick up? I Love You, Honeybear (2015), about his love affair with his wife, Emma, is a near-perfect record: crisp and not yet bogged down in an irritatingly knowing self-awareness. Once his ego became his brand, it ballooned out of control. On Pure Comedy (2017) his lyrics were at times downright uncomfortable, as when he sang of “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift”. On God’s Favorite Customer (2018) he stripped his songs bare, but his lone voice and single guitar only further emphasised his obsession with his own public persona.

On his new record, Chloë and the Next 20th Century, released on Bella Union on Friday 8 April, Tillman has found a solid middle ground for the first time since Honeybear. These are smart, amusing songs with the sumptuous instrumentation he introduced us to on his first two records, but without the weight of the many-mirrored trickery that has previously distracted from his fine songwriting.

The album opens with piano, muted brass and brushed drums, like a song from an Edwardian musical comedy. Tillman sings a ditty about Chloë, a “borough socialist” who shoplifts, who he asks never to change. Tillman’s onstage performances have always been theatrical, and this song functions as an overture, its delicate instrumental arrangements charming and characteristically humour-filled. This being a Father John Misty song, there’s a touch of morbidity: Chloë’s summer ends on the balcony, Tillman sings, from where she “Took a leap into the autumn leaves”.

Tillman’s lyrics are still a draw here (though there’s nothing quite like Honeybear’s “Oh I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man / I mean like a goddamn marching band”). His mode is no longer ultra-personal, nor does he so explicitly weigh up major themes – mortality, technological dominance – as he has previously. Instead these songs are observational sketches, stories of characters trying to make their way in the world. They are plainer, tending to question: “Everything you want? / What’s the fun in getting everything you want? / I wouldn’t know but, look, baby you should try / Forget that lefty shit your mom drilled in your mind,” he sings, his voice a silky tenor, on the slow, stately “Buddy’s Rendevous”.

It is in the lush instrumental arrangements that this record finds its warmth. Tillman’s humour – his jibes and playfulness – are expressed through genre pastiches that feature saxophone riffs and bossa nova rhythms. The brass interjections of “Only a Fool” are circus-like, funny in and of themselves, while the subtle psychedelic guitar of “(Everything But) Her Love”, an otherwise unassuming waltz, suggests an influence of late-Sixties Beatles. There’s an unlikely harpsichord in “Q4”, a song about how art is rushed for profit. “It was just a thing for their Q4,” he sings, again and again, the lyric almost sounding like something “to thank you for”.

Given Tillman’s vaudevillian instincts, it makes sense that he would end up in the theatre, mimicking old genres as his next act. As he told Radcliffe and Maconie in that 2016 interview, “I get jollies from seeing this ridiculous name on a marquee. That’s a better indicator of who I am than my own name.”

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