Love him or hate him, Josh Tillman—the real life mastermind behind Father John Misty—is one of the most interesting people in music at the moment. It’s impossible to predict what he’s going to do next; one day he’ll release a nightmarish lullaby for Stephen Colbert and the next, debut an uber-meta cover of Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift in the style of The Velvet Underground. Practically the definition of spontaneous, Tillman is one of the funniest comedians around and it’s precisely that wicked sense of humor and witticisms that makes his music so arresting and profound.
Even before this stint presenting as Father John Misty, the man behind the character released music with Fleet Foxes, as well as a remarkable eight albums as J. Tillman. In addition to his three studio LPs, with Pure Comedy only gracing us with its release three weeks ago, Misty has recorded all kinds of non-album tracks like his sardonic fake Prius commercial soundtrack, now-deleted sardonic generic pop songs and b-sides and demos like the horrific “Maybe, Sweet One, You Won’t Have Nightmares Tonight” and the heartfelt “Nothing Hurts Worse.”
Considering only his album tracks and his most popular, pervasive single, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to rank every song by Father John Misty. Don’t forget to read our cover story, too.
37. “Well, You Can Do It Without Me”
Over a delightful retro keyboard line, Josh Tillman roars and yelps, his voice straining before the song’s slowed-down, nearly a capella conclusion. Recalling the best of the more upbeat side of the ‘70s Laurel Canyon music scene, where he later relocated to write I Love You, Honeybear, “Well, You Can Do It Without Me” could easily be interpreted as his “goodbye Fleet Foxes” song – “If you’re bound for the throne but the king won’t die” and “Yeah you can do it, but you can do it without me.”
36. “Tee Pees 1-12”
A huge percentage of Fear Fun was influenced by psychedelics, specifically mushrooms and Ayahuasca. “Tee Pees 1-12” begins with fairly innocent intentions, but quickly devolves into pure absurdity, as Tillman meets a “cosmic serpent with pants rolling into his hair,” hosts his own TV show and gets a skin graft to match faces with his partner. “Tee Pees” is a delightfully corny hoedown, complete with claps and a fiddle, and as a result, acts as a relative musical outlier with the rest of his catalogue.
35. “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”
This month’s Pure Comedy is a lengthy album with two songs pushing 10 minutes or more and only three running fewer than four minutes. “Magic Mountain” is one of the long ones, and it includes a gratuitous five or so minute-long instrumental full of fuzzed out keyboards and slide guitars that eventually collapse on itself to form something reminiscent of Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine score. Using the name of L.A.’s most famous roller coaster theme park as a metaphor, “Magic Mountain” addresses Father John Misty’s understated fear of aging.
34. “I’m Writing a Novel”
Before writing Fear Fun, Tillman did in fact write a book, titled Mostly Hypothetical Mountains. “I was using these dormant abilities— witticism, satire, etc., and having a really fucking good time doing that,” Tillman said in 2012. “I hadn’t enjoyed the creative process in so long, not in an innocent, creative way, as opposed to, ‘Is this album good? Is this gonna help my career?’ There was no lust for success, and I think that once I accessed that, I couldn’t really go back to the old style of songwriting once I’d done that.” “I’m Writing a Novel” is the musical culmination of Tillman’s experiences on hallucinogens and book writing; Father John Misty as we know it wouldn’t exist without the two.
One of the most blatant and straightforward songs on Pure Comedy, “Smoochie” is a love song without any subtext of sarcasm or wider commentary on politics or the world as a whole. Though its lyrics are simple, it doesn’t land like other tracks like “I Went to the Store One Day” or “20 Years or So.” That being said, look for this one to be featured in a future indie romantic comedy at some point in the next five years.
32. “True Affection”
Though he may have made three “Generic Pop Songs as a total joke, Father John Misty tries out electronics and synthesizers for the first time. It largely works, even though it doesn’t really flow with the rest of I Love You, Honeybear. Clearly an intentional use of irony, he mockingly laments about having to use modern technology to have a meaningful conversation over his most electronic beat to date.
31. “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2”
Though he gets more personal in his later work and blurs the line between Josh Tillman and Father John Misty, it’s important to remember that Fear Fun is largely about a made up, hard drinking, womanizing character. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2,” a track about sleeping around and trying to find yourself in the process, rather than through other people. The line “I don’t know how they got here / I don’t know what to say about this / And they all go that way” is tinged with regret, illustrating one of the few times Father John Misty The Character actually feels any semblance of guilt.
30. “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”
The second single off Pure Comedy, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is Tillman’s preachiest song, released just 10 days into the Trump presidency. While he addresses politics throughout the album, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is the only one that doesn’t even attempt to shroud itself in any sort of metaphor, describing the increasingly large divide between liberal and conservative America, never showing where he stands himself. It’s perhaps the slowest song on Pure Comedy, but features interesting percussion in the middle third.
29. “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”
Here’s another of the rare instances in which Tillman (mostly) ditches the Father John Misty character and writes a sentimental song about his relationship with his wife, Emma. With throwback doo-woppy “oohs” and “ahhs,” he sings about how Emma’s personality is unchangeable and that the little things, like simply seeing her smile and going on walks, is what matters most in their relationship. Whether the “aimless, fake drifter and the horny man-child mama’s boy” is Father John Misty or Josh Tillman, “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” is one of his sweetest love songs to date.
28. “Everyman Needs a Companion”
Josh Tillman knows how to end a record. Though this is the weakest song of the three album closers, it’s still strong, mixing religious metaphors with personal statements. The song’s lyrics address his Father John Misty character in the most blatant way possible: “Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones couldn’t give me a myth / 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.” Ending his first album as Father John Misty while poking fun at his past projects, the companion he “needs” may actually be himself.
27. “A Bigger Paper Bag”
Pure Comedy rewards those who give it multiple close listens, and “A Bigger Paper Bag” showcases some of those subtleties, especially in its lyrics. Musically, the breezy percussion and acoustic guitar strums give “A Bigger Paper Bag” a relaxing feel, broken up by a warm keyboard breakdown. But lyrically, Tillman again addresses his anxieties about technology with lines like, “The weaker the signal, the sweeter the noise / Hunching over an instrument that you now employ.” He also compares “a child with cash” and “a king on cocaine,” a strong simile to find buried in a pop song.
26. “Strange Encounter”
Fuzzed out guitar solos and possibly Tillman’s strongest vocal line to date, “Strange Encounter” details an instance where a houseguest—presumably Emma, since it came off Honeybear—almost dies of alcohol poisoning. Pleading to his guest not to “be my last strange encounter,” Tillman admits, “Though neither one of us would leave unscathed / At least we’ll both go on living.” This is possibly the darkest song in his back catalogue (except the satirical “Maybe, Sweet One, You Won’t Have Nightmares Tonight”).
25. “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow”
As noted prior, I Love You, Honeybear signals the blurring of Father John Misty and Josh Tillman, and this is the toughest track to parse out. In an 2015 interview, Tillman described a time when he was drinking at The Thirsty Crow (yes, it’s a real bar in Silver Lake) and he overheard a “very insecure, petulant imp who [was] objectifying the woman he claims to love, thinking of her like an object that is his.” But this takedown seems in contrast to the narrator-character her presents throughout Fear Fun, which is precisely why he’s so fascinating as a writer. By hiding himself in a different character, it’s near impossible to figure out where Misty ends and Tillman begins.
“Birdie” is one of the only songs explicitly about escapism throughout his three albums. Throughout Pure Comedy, Tillman critiques modern politics and society at large, but only here does he ever envision leaving it. He’s cautiously optimistic about the future, however, patiently waiting for a world that relatively disregards gender, race, violence and more. The song crescendos as he sings, “Oh, that day can’t come soon enough / It’ll be so glorious,” interrupting one of the quieter tracks on Pure Comedy with one of the most interesting musical moments on the whole record.
23. “Now I’m Learning to Love the War”
This is the first time that Father John Misty becomes the sarcastic Father John Misty we all know and love. Pointing out the hypocrisy between environmental advocacy and vinyl and art collection, “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” almost reads like one of his interviews—funny, witty and cynical as hell. You can almost see the smirk on his face throughout this whole song, especially when he jokes at the end of the song that “I sure hope they make something useful out of me.” It’s the first, but certainly not the last time he lets his sense of humor shine.
22. “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me”
The simplest song Tillman has ever written. Sandwiched between the drug-addled hysteria of “I’m Writing a Novel” and “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2,” “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” is direct, short, sweet and primed for sentimental mixtapes.
21. “This is Sally Hatchet”
Fear Fun track “This is Sally Hatchet” describes a girl that’s disinterested in the world at large. While different in a few key ways to the woman depicted in “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment,” the two are actually fairly similar, full of insufferable entitlement. The track ends with a cool distorted guitar solo analogous to the breakdowns throughout I Love You, Honeybear.