The Third Pre-Apocalyptic Political Iteration of Father John Misty

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The Third Pre-Apocalyptic Political Iteration of Father John Misty

It takes a simple mind, corrupted by an Internet-age fetish for categorization, to reckon with art by sorting it into arbitrary groups of his own devising, as though the division is itself somehow meaningful. But I’m going to do it anyway, if only to have one small moment in this essay that isn’t rambling or indulgent.

Thesis: The American artist Josh Tillman, arguably the most astute political musician currently working, always with one prescient eye on the apocalypse, has released three albums under the name “Father John Misty.” The songs on these albums can be broadly separated into three types, each one a response to the current political moment.

Type One: The Father John Misty songs

For some—particularly radio interviewers who have read the first line of his Wikipedia page and not much else—the great mystery of Father John Misty is the name itself. Where does it come from? What’s the creation myth? There are countless theories, many of them centering around his own strict religious upbringing. The wisest psychologists see in the name a reaction to his parents, and to their church, where the parishioners spoke in tongues. They posit that just as Tillman broke from that institution, and from his parents, “Father John Misty” is a symbolic break from the ties of a previous life that includes semi-successful stints as a morose folk singer and a drummer for Fleet Foxes. But in the absence of confirmation, the mystery persists.

Yet the mystery should not persist—over and over again, Tillman has insisted that the name is just a name, empty of deeper significance. In one interview, when asked if it came to him in a dream, he said, “it’s not a character to me. It’s a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a t-shirt.” Elsewhere, he has confessed his amusement with the audacity of creating an alter-ego who seems to exist in the space between “spiritual guru” and “snake oil salesman”; one whose very name undercuts his seriousness, implying as it does a bombastic, charismatic, uniquely American fraud. And if you wanted to read into the pseudonym on a symbolic level, you might wonder whether the word “misty” has its own significance—if it telegraphs a Loki-like intention to obscure, to deceive, or if it’s just a happy accident.

Nevertheless, as much as Tillman denies that the character of “Father John Misty” has even a nebulous form, the presence of the false prophet is tangible on his first album, Fear Fun. (Never after, though—even the faintest hint of somebody “real” has evaporated by the second album, I Love You, Honeybear.) As every good fan knows, Tillman underwent a personal revolution that involved taking mushrooms, sitting naked in trees, and moving to Los Angeles in the lead-up to writing his first album. The energy generated by this personal liberation is evident throughout Fear Fun, and whatever the meticulous realities of its actual creation, it feels as though it was made in a hallucinogenic burst of genius.

It is also a political response to the world of 2012, and the second term of Barack Obama—the man Tillman would later allude to as “President Jesus” in song. The dream of true change had long since vanished, and the realities of an entrenched and unchangeable neoliberal order had a depressing effect on the self-concept of America’s leftists and liberals. It was a far cry from the joy of four years earlier, but it was also a far cry from the chaos and terror of four years hence. It seemed that there was no functional way to respond—our man was in power, but it didn’t matter. These were stultifying times.

The spiritual stagnation of the country, colliding with the intensity of Tillman’s transformation, sparked an album of comic defiance. If you picture the people of the world being carried on a slow but implacable current, bound for some unspeakable horror and unable to alter their destiny, Father John Misty is the one man who doesn’t look so grim—in fact, as we circle closer and closer to the great drain, he’s the one reclined on an inflatable water lounger, sipping an ostentatious cocktail, chest hair on display, with a cryptic grin for the panicked and the damned.

Tillman is not a coy songwriter, and he does us the favor, on every album, of including his own thesis statement on the opening track. “Fun Times in Babylon,” lays out the Fear Fun worldview:

Fun times in Babylon
That’s what I’m counting on
Before the dam goes up at the foot of the sea
Before the new wing of the prison ribbon ceremony
Before the star of the morning comes looking for me

I would like to abuse my lungs
Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved
Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in mud
Look out Hollywood, here I come

We don’t need much translation here—the biblical Babylon is the giant failing empire, is Rome, is America. The narrator of the song acknowledges the inevitable collapse, and vows to milk life for every cheap thrill, for every sensual abandonment, before the real nightmare begins. This is a retreat into excess.

Fear Fun, then, is a reconciliation—Josh Tillman’s renaissance meets the death of America, and because he’s too full of life to succumb to the defeatist ennui that may be the only logical reaction to late-stage capitalism, he advocates for a kind of nihilistic hedonism in the face of the collapse. Or, not “he”—more precisely, he filters this viewpoint through the character of Father John Misty.

This is not to contradict Tillman’s own statements about the non-existence of his nom de plume. He’s right—there is no straight line between the decadent horseman in “Fun Times in Babylon,” or:

—The destructive, masochistic drunk in “Nancy From Now On.”

—The “Adderall and weed” proponent who attends multiple funerals for strange old men, claiming it’s his grandfather, and makes love in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery atop a marble tomb.

—The drugged-out novelist who hallucinates encounters with Neil Young, Sartre, and Heidegger, and is introduced via one of the funniest opening lines music history: “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!”

—The semi-reluctant lothario of “Only Son of the Ladiesman”

—The Richard Brautigan-referencing Ayahuasca and BDSM practitioner of “Tee Pees 1-12.”

You get the picture—these songs are picaresques, shambolic, wonderful, hilarious, populated by clueless phonies at the mercy of entropic tides, but infused with vitality and life nonetheless. It’s possible, they say, to maintain a kind of crackpot humor in the end times—to stare into the abyss, and laugh when it stares back. All you have to do is give up the pipe dream of a sane world.

It’s also noteworthy that the songs on Fear Fun are largely character-driven—as in, they’re told from perspectives of men who may share experiences or opinions with Tillman, but are distinct from him in experience. There are exaggerations, absurdities, and literary devices to distinguish the songs from nonfiction, and the figures embodied in each can be collectively referred to as “Father John Misty.” This inventiveness is also unique to Tillman’s oeuvre—with the odd exception, his next two albums dispensed with this kind of storytelling, and even when a “character” appeared, he would be used as a paper-thin device used to express Tillman’s various disdains, rather than someone who occupies his own space in a discrete landscape. Beyond Fear Fun, almost every song would be framed from the perspective of Josh Tillman, rather than a character of his creation.

Finally, it’s impossible not to notice that Fear Fun also contains Tillman’s best melodies—these songs are more upbeat, with catchier hooks and more basic verse-chorus compositions carried by the strength of the music, than anything that would come after.

Type Two: The Infatuation Songs

Once again, the theme of 2014’s I Love You, Honeybear comes in the first song, which doubles as the title track:

Everything is doomed, and nothing will be spared
But I love you, honeybear

The sense of a political apocalypse is even more omnipresent on Honeybear, but instead of advocating for a selfish kind of debauchery as a way of saying “fuck you” to a world that can’t be saved—because after all, this is not a sustainable way to live, and is too much like the endless consumption espoused by our corporate overlords—now Tillman is in love. The media blitz that accompanied the release made no secret of the fact—Emma Tillman, his wife, was a central character in the story of Honeybear, and almost every song features Tillman grappling with the power of this love, and trying to address it with a degree of sincerity that must share space with his unshakeable cynicism.

That conflict is articulated again and again, though never more clearly than in the line quoted above. It’s fascinating to watch Tillman’s album-long attempt to convince himself that a love of this intensity, in this doomed place, is possible. Mixed in with the passion and humor (which often occupy the same space: “I wanna take you in the kitchen / lift up your wedding dress that someone was probably murdered in”) there’s an undercurrent of anxiety here, as though Tillman constantly expects something—whether it’s himself, his wife, or the world—to ruin this good thing that he’s found. He veers close to existential desperation at times—he rails against the men hitting on his wife at a bar, argues that he’s unworthy of her, bemoans the state of a rotten world, and returns again and again to his terror at the idea of losing something that has finally made him whole.

I call these “infatuation songs” instead of “love songs” because, quite strangely, the theme is entirely absent on his third album, 2017’s Pure Comedy. What happened to love? What happened to Emma? In the second book of his excellent memoir My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard gives one of the best, most achingly honest descriptions of how a relationship transitions from the feverish infatuation of the early days to something less volatile and more durable. Knausgaard’s marriage survived, but he acknowledges that the moment when the high passion wears off is precisely when the relationship is most vulnerable. Life returns to the quotidian, and without the ardor that fueled the days of passion, something less romantic is required for sustenance. Reading the book recently, it struck me how Knausgaard’s painstaking examination of this process contrasted with Tillman, who gives us a thorough look at the infatuation, and then drops the subject completely.

The fact that love doesn’t reappear on Tillman’s next album is not a repudiation of Honeybear, by any means, but it does indicate that the all-consuming flames that drove him to create the album are no longer the focus of his existence—the attraction no longer burns so bright that it excludes him from writing or thinking about anything else.

In the album’s final song, “I Went to the Store One Day,” he delivers a line that a superstitious person would consider a jinx:

For love to find us, of all people
I never thought it’d be so simple

That’s the rub with Honeybear—a few years later, you get the strong suspicion that it wasn’t so simple.

Two songs stand out as exceptions to the theme. The first, “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment,” tells the story of a sexual encounter with a vapid younger woman who bears the brunt of the narrator’s scorn, even as his lust compels him to tolerate her “petty, vogue ideas.” In place of a true chorus, the song contains a simple, short riff that will go down as one of the most beautiful musical moments of Tillman’s career. The lyrics themselves, caustic even by his standards, generated controversy among those who missed the narrator’s deep self-loathing, and read the lyrics as purely misogynistic.

The other exception is “Bored in the USA”—a slow, piano-driven ballad featuring Tillman waxing philosophical about the bone-deep sadness of modern life for your average middle-class white person, complete with an absurdist laugh track that runs at the bleakest moments (and which highlighted a bold, hilarious, alienating performance on David Letterman). While the theme of love would vanish on the next album, this particular song was a harbinger of things to come.

Type Three: The Political Diatribe

On Pure Comedy, Father John Misty’s third album, there is no more transference—the way to deal with the pain of modern times is to complain about it bitterly, and at length. As in Honeybear, the title track comes first, and lays out the approach that will dominate the album:

The comedy of man starts like this
Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips
And so Nature, she divines this alternative
We emerged half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end
Is kind enough to fill us in
And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since…

Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy
Just wait until the part where they start to believe
They’re at the center of everything
And some all powerful being endowed this horror show with meaning

This is what he promises, and this is what he delivers throughout the rest of the album. The lyrics are still as smart as anything you’ll find in music, and the humor is omnipresent—though it’s more grim, and more cutting, than ever before—but the point of this album is to detail, with great heapings of irony, the flaws of mankind and all its systems. Our weakness, our venality, and our propensity for conflict take center stage, and Tillman illustrates how these eternal traits have been further corrupted by a shallow, self-perpetuating entertainment complex. As a critique of late-stage capitalism, moreover, Pure Comedy is both profound and unmatched in pop music—I can’t think of anything that comes remotely close to Tillman’s eloquence on the subject.

In almost every interview I’ve read with Tillman, he’s been careful to note that the songs were written long before anybody considered a Trump presidency realistic, so even though the release seems timed as a reaction to the election, it’s actually best viewed as a clear-eyed prediction. Which doesn’t change the timing itself, or the fact that Tillman was a bit unlucky to cast himself as a prophet of doom after the reality of the doom had become abundantly clear. It’s easy to react to this album by thinking, “yes, we get it, things are awful, we don’t need the reminder,” even though it’s unfair, and even though he was writing this type of song as far back as Fear Fun’s “Now I’m Learning to Love the War.”

In terms of what do about the increasingly imminent apocalypse, though, Tillman offers less than ever. If his answer was “hedonism” in Fear Fun, and “love” in Honeybear, here he seems to advocate for a feckless, ironic detachment. Where the characters in the first album were enmeshed in the absurdities of life, scrambling between revelation and humiliation, and where Tillman himself was bound up in his love for Emma in the second, now there is nothing tying him to the world beyond general disdain. (The album ends on a note that could be generously described as optimistic, but when the overwhelming majority of the lyrical content comes from a place of disgust, the light at the end of the tunnel is necessarily dim and unconvincing.) When there are “characters,” as in “The Ballad of the Dying Man,” they are purposefully transparent conceits—in this case, designed to mock the legions of Internet warriors who dedicate their lives to winning online arguments.

Pure Comedy strikes me as joyless and dispassionate by Tillman’s standards. The lyrics retain their sharp edge, and it’s difficult to go more than a few lines without running into a formulation that is laugh-out-loud funny or independently brilliant, but thematically and musically, the album induces a feeling that I never expected from Father John Misty: Boredom. In my attempts to listen from start to finish, I have never reached the sixth track, “Leaving LA”—a 13-minute opus that is as lyrically fascinating as it is musically dull—without feeling the urge to shut it off, to do something else, to escape the cynical drudgery. In song after song, for 75 minutes, there is an absence of melody, of energy, to the point that it becomes hard to distinguish between tracks, and the experience feels like one long tone poem set to a piano. Which is too harsh, and too impressionistic—there are strong musical moments—but each time, the listening experience reliably fades into monotony.

In a nutshell, this is a slog. Tillman has taken his music on a journey from subjectivity to objectivity, and the art has suffered as a result. No matter how brilliant an artist might be—and Tillman is quite brilliant—spending that much time expounding on humanity’s shortcomings, with only the loosest artistic constructs to disguise the presumption of omniscience, is bound to be frustrating and repetitive. Tillman fails to recognize his own bias here, and it leads me to wonder—when did the self-deprecating humor of Fear Fun become so scornful, and when did the sense of living at the mercy of capricious fate turn into this cruel kind of arrogance?

Deflections

This is where it becomes tricky to write about Father John Misty—he has nearly made himself immune to real criticism. Tillman is so staggeringly intelligent, in such an intimidating way, that he has practically rendered himself invisible. I have a secret suspicion that many music writers believe he could do their jobs better than they could, or at least rip them to pieces at a literary whim. Maybe they’re right. In any case, he’s like a musical Medusa—look directly in his face, and a journalist turns to stone. This is why most “criticism” of Tillman centers around the usual Internet bullshit—drummed-up idiocy about whether “The Night…” is misogynistic, or whether his line about bedding Taylor Swift in an Oculus Rift is sexist, or what to make of his post-RNC rant at a music festival.

In this way, discussion of Father John Misty is reduced to the same level of banality that distinguishes much of our political discourse. And when tasked with the job of actually reviewing the album, it proves impossible for many critics to express a simple opinion—such as, “Tillman is politically astute, but this album is tedious.” They hint at the idea, and give scores that are just above mediocre, but the sentiments are buried beneath distracting headlines and timid language recapping the most inane of the controversies. It’s a new, accidental form of damning with faint praise.

Of course, Tillman himself is to blame for this—at least to some degree. He is a master of fogging his true identity, and managing perceptions and expectations. He anticipates his own criticism better than anyone, and is constantly trying to protect himself from potential attacks. The defensive impulse even made it into the lyrics for “Leaving LA”:

And I’m merely a minor fascination to
Manic virginal lust and college dudes
I’m beginning to begin to see the end
Of how it all goes down between me and them
Some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe
Plays as they all jump ship, “I used to like this guy
This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die”

I don’t mean to suggest this is base calculation on his part, but the implication is clear—there is a certain kind of person who understands the point of this 13-minute song, and there is a certain kind of person who won’t get it. For a critic faced with someone of Tillman’s withering wit, he presents a daunting obstacle—how do you possibly say that “Leaving LA” is boring and discursive, even when it’s intermittently moving, without exposing yourself as a stupid philistine? Whether Tillman consciously intends it or not, he has used his reputation to set a trap.

You can see this defense mechanism in many of Tillman’s interviews. Here at Paste, speaking with Bonnie Stiernberg, he made reference to himself as a “ego-monster protecting and shaping the perception of me,” and the multi-hour interviews he routinely gives to journalists have a way of burying truth inside a torrent of language, though the language is compelling. And as far as I know, Stiernberg is the only interviewer who has identified his habit of repeating certain jokes, certain asides, in a way that reveals a controlling tendency for image-curation:

There are, by my count, at least six interviews other than this one in which Tillman says something and then sort of half-jokingly tells a reporter “You can put ‘laughs bitterly’ in brackets.”

So when he says it to me after referring to “Leaving LA” as “my 15-minute masterpiece,” it’s jarring—because it’s rehearsed, because it stands in seemingly violent contradiction to how much he cares about this incredibly personal piece of music, because it feels a little like when Verbal Kint loses his limp and turns into Keyser Soze at the end of The Usual Suspects.

Of course, it’s hard to know whether this is manipulation at the most tactical level, or simply the form that his insecurities take. Regardless, he’s so good at what he does that most stories, and most reviews, can’t escape the narrative he lays out for them. This shields him from the occasional negative paragraph, perhaps, but it has the dual effect of ensuring that his genius—which is present everywhere, including Pure Comedy—is both underestimated and misunderstood.

This essay, for instance, couldn’t possibly have been written after conducting an interview with him (big tragedy, I know). If other interviews are any indication, we would speak for hours, he would weave his verbal webs, and I would return home armed with nothing except the words themselves, too many to contend with, too many to sort through and arrive at anything like the truth. It’s like the old trick you’ve seen in a thousand movies and TV shows—when a lone vigilante lawyer seeks to expose a dirty secret, the giant guilty corporation ships him boxes and boxes of paperwork, hundreds of boxes, so that the Eureka moment is buried in the stacks.

You can’t learn about Josh Tillman from his interviews, because he’s a natural talker on steroids, a fluid and impressive thinker who contends with, consecrates, and disposes of a thousand thoughts at once, and it’s impossible to know which of these words contain piercing truths, which ones only hint at truths, which are purposeful misdirections, and which, most dangerously, he believes to be true, but only in the moment, so that the next day if you asked him the same question, he would take the other side.

And complicating matters further is his acute sense of how he’s perceived in the culture. No matter how smart Tillman is, he is also someone who wants to be seen as smart. In this desire, there is a vulnerability that opens a window onto his art, and theoretically provides access to Tillman through his pain. Too often, though, we fall for the projections. There are too few writers who would entertain the idea that he might be a con artist and a genius at the same time, that both could be equally true, and that, in fact, those two qualities might bolster each other. To invoke Loki once more, this is his spiritual model—endlessly interesting, protean, and completely untrustworthy on a certain surface level. But his mental agility doesn’t free him from the burden of coveting approval—he just goes about it in more clever ways than we’re used to.

It would be okay for people to write this. The only charge that would be irresponsible would be to question his commitment to art, which is unassailable—it’s the bedrock on which all the other contradictions are based, and the foundation of his talent.

What does this have to do with politics? Well, everything—all art is political, but Tillman has chosen to address political matters in explicit terms from his significant platform. It’s just that his conclusion, at each juncture of his career, has been to shrink from any kind of collective political answer, and revert instead to various forms of individualism.

Is This Okay?

Ultimately, we come to the question that has no answer: To what extent does an artist like Father John Misty bear any political responsibility? He’s not a pundit, or a politician, or an activist, and he never claimed to be. If he wants to stand on top of his mountain and judge America from a distance, who am I or anyone else to say he’s wrong? And isn’t it true that if my instinct is to hold him up to an imagined standard, or to criticize his recent work in a political context, that I’m only doing so because of my deep admiration for his art—which is, in itself, slightly fucked up and ungrateful, and makes me feel so guilty that I want to scrub the whole thing? Shouldn’t he have total freedom from pricks like me?

Perhaps I’m only writing about him because he is a person who fascinates me, at a fascinating political moment, and I expected something more compelling from Pure Comedy than a predictable recap of everything that’s gone wrong. Or perhaps I’m suffering from the delusion that Tillman could make a lick of difference in the first place, no matter how he addressed the American problem.

But it’s there in me anyway, begging to be written—a sense that Tillman’s political evolution, from profligate to paramour to ironist, is going in the wrong direction, and mirrors the enervated state of the music itself. And that on some deeper level, we’re at a time when the only moral answer to our political situation, which may indeed be hopeless, is total engagement, and that art which leads us in the opposite direction, to a state of wry fatalism—particularly from an artist of such political keenness, who has seen the world with the kind of clarity and foreknowledge that is unavailable even to those who do this kind of thing for a living—is misplaced in time and spirit.

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