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The self-indulgent, narcissistic alter ego of Josh Tillman has given a mournful voice to the modern discontents
I first heard of Father John Misty when a then-student of mine recommended “Bored in the USA”, off the 2015 album I love you, Honeybear. I was a literature teacher at the time. And more out of interest in what my students were listening to than any musical curiosity, I dipped into the album on my commute home.
Enraptured, I listened from start to finish. Which also meant spending half an hour in the driveway so I could listen to the whole album through.
Transfixed for the whole 45 minutes in a mix of awe and confusion at the hilariously caustic lyrics, the bitter irony in the singer’s tone, the asynchronous melodies, an elusive but serious meaning, and beneath it all the sensuous ’70s-esque voice that gets so little recognition.
It was one of those, “where has this been all my life?” moments. The sort that leaves you wondering what else you’ve missed from blinking, over-sleeping or paying attention to less interesting distractions in this mortal existence: distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot put it.
As the final notes from “I Went to the Store One Day” died down, the inevitable question arose: Who is Father John Misty?
The simple answer is that he’s the alter ego of Josh Tillman, the former drummer of popular indie-folk band Fleet Foxes, and who — owing to creative and musical frustrations — broke free to record music on his own.
The more complicated answer is one that reveals why FJM has become a postmodern phenomenon: he’s the voice of a discontented millennial generation — a manifestation of the modern era’s performance and
Throughout his oeuvre, from Fear Fun (2012) to God’s Favorite Customer (2018), his songs are saturated in irony, unapologetically drawing attention to the fallibility of the human condition and our detrimental obsession with technology, entertainment and celebrity culture. It’s a missive that has ignited a flammable reaction on more than one occasion.
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In “Total Entertainment Forever” a track off 2016’s Pure Comedy, Misty opens with the lines: “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift /After Mister and the Misses / Finish dinner and the dishes.”
It’s an opening that unsurprisingly sparked widespread outrage at the image created of a media darling subjected to the carnal whims of everyone with access to VR technology. Some even called for Tillman’s head on account of libel. He responded by telling Rolling Stone, “You have to be willfully ignorant of the fact the song is about more than that.
“At some point we all need to grow up. Willful ignorance is what children do. I mean, Bob Dylan would reference actresses by name in a surreal way to make a point about culture.
“Entertainment is really about forgetting about your life, and art is about remembering your life. Sometimes remembering your life involves stronger emotions than the narcotic glow of entertainment,” he said.
“Jimmy Fallon is [an] entertainer. What I’ve set out to do is more than to just entertain.”
Far from merely taking cheap shots at pop culture figures for shock and awe value, the Tillman-Misty quest to elucidate the darkest aspects of modern living is a way of commenting on what he calls the “soul-killing hazards of modern entertainment”. Also, which other celebrity names rhyme with Oculus Rift?
Through the postmodern method of using a character to comment on a dislocated sense of self in the increasingly fragmented world we inhabit, Tillman uses his alter ego to try to explain where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Consider the opening lines to the title track from Pure Comedy, a panoramic satire on the human condition and its inherent absurdities: “The comedy of man starts like this / Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips / And so Nature, she divines an alternative / We emerge 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.”
It’s not your uplifting Saturday morning ditty. Nor is it your nightclub dance floor filler. Deliberately so: it rails against popular entertainment. It is hilariously morbid and intentionally morose, as his reference to the Earth as “this Godless rock which refuses to die” emphasises.
There is a Messiah complex operating here. That is irrefutable. Even by Tillman’s admission. It’s part of his raison d’être. In which case, “more than just entertaining” is an honest and accurate assessment of his quest — whether you agree with his methods or not.
At times it’s a quest that spills over into indulgent self-righteousness. Or what his critics call “glorified and extended Twitter rants” — an accusation that found context not long ago.
While touring in 2016, Misty took to the stage in Camden, New Jersey. But instead launching into song, he digressed into a 30-minute rant-cum-lecture about the numbing role entertainment plays in people’s lives and how “stupidity ruins the world”. Rather presciently, this was four months before Donald Trump was elected Commander in Chief.
Some of the highlights from Tillman’s sermon go, “I always thought it was going to look way more sophisticated than this when evil happened. When the collective consciousness was so numb and sated and so gorged on entertainment.”
And: “I cannot play ‘Bored in the USA’ for you right now. No. Because guess what? I soft-shoed that into existence by going, ‘Look over here, it’ll never actually be that bad because we’re too smart.’ And while we were looking in that direction, stupidity just runs the world because entertainment is stupid! Do you guys realise that?”
Tillman’s resentment of modern entertainment is a voice that finds a choir with performers like Bo Burnham and Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, both of whom rail against the distractions of 24/7 entertainment as a means of avoiding reality.
It is through this lens of the desensitised and fallible performer that the creation of Father John Misty is best understood. He is the product of an age where entertainment is a human right, an age that makes a virtue of daily social media performances. “There’s something innately false about performance,” Tillman told The New Yorker.
“I wanted to be authentically bogus rather than bogusly authentic.”
To some, those comments reek of pompous pretension. To others, they strike the point of the modern consciousness like a needle.
And so, in his music, Misty turns away from an over-reliance on heavy beats and overpowering instrumentals that detract from the voice and the lyrics: language is all we have to find and form meaning, after all.
Take the gentle and effortless piano fill in “Ballad of the Dying Man”. It provides an accompanying melody rather than an overweening one. Then there’s the light guitar strumming. And the way each instrument bows out in silence, making way for the vocals, solidifying the idea of a ballad for The Dying Man — in other words, a ballad for all of us. Pay attention to the words. To how we communicate with each other. Don’t be distracted by what’s going on in the background. This is us.
But just as we’ve begun to understand him, with last month’s release of God’s Favorite Customer we may have seen the conclusion of Tillman’s sardonic stage persona.
Though he would likely reject all labels and adjectives that seek to define him, Misty is part provocateur, part philosopher, part anti-establishment figure. Bon viveur, even. Or an amalgam of reactionary attitudes to the zeitgeist’s obsession with self and technological trappings.
The man himself is also an enigma — his eyes usually hidden behind sunglasses on stage and off. He once told The Observer that FJM says “the most true things I will ever say”, while at the same time feeling that his guise as the ironic atheistic is an exercise in “beta-male, self-aware trickery”.
Thrown into all of that self-awareness is Tillman’s unique sense of style: shirts open to the chest, the collars overhanging an unbuttoned blazer, slim-fit slacks and boots.
There is no doubt that the 37-year-old musician is a complex paradox. One you have to work to unravel — much to the despair of those unwilling to engage with higher-level thinking: which, ironically, is precisely the cause of his misanthropy.
His self-ascribed mission, as he says in “Holy S**t”, is to provide “a commentary to comment on”; to provide an attack on accepted norms, on conformity for conformity’s sake, to ignite intelligent debate.
All of which brings us to now, and what could well be the closing chapter of Tillman’s exploration of the Father John Misty character. The melancholic piano ballad “The Songwriter” seems to be a farewell to Misty’s arms. “What would it sound like, if you were the songwriter,” Misty sings to Tillman, in a mirroring of self that is only possible through the sort of artistic character development Tillman has perfected.
“What would it sound like, if you were the songwriter, and loving me was your unsung masterpiece?”
For those who know FJM, it’s a moving dirge that leaves us wondering whether we’ll see another album released in Father John Misty’s name, or whether Tillman is moving on. To those unacquainted with his music, the piece is no less poignant. It forces the listener to question their place in the world. It exposes a man grappling with meaning in a world that grows more fragmented by the day.
This is where Tillman’s music chimes with a younger generation known to define themselves in opposition to anything considered “cool” by their contemporaries.
And it is also why he strikes a chord with older generations who despair at the youth — a group of people whose reliance on technology and seeming desire to live virtually through smartphone screens is sending humanity hurtling towards a world so self-obsessed it forgets to be human in the process.