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!” / And I’m writing a novel because it’s never been done before
There’s nothing quite like a highway road trip to exorcise a creative malaise. When J. Tillman motored away from his grey Seattle home, he was looking to shatter an “immobilizing depression” and the bleak confines of his prior solo work. Steering his van out of King County with no destination in mind, he was determined to find the fun in his “wound-licking” music again. Quitting his Fleet Foxes drum gig wasn’t a jarring enough change and so, fueled by psilocybin and a head full of demons, he embraced his transient self; his alter ego “Father John Misty” was born on the road to ruin. Along the Pacific Trail he wrote a madcap novel (eventually included in its entirety in his album’s liner notes) and drifted 1100 miles into Hollywood’s smoggy arms, alighting near Houdini’s old house. Settling into a shack in Laurel Canyon (who knew?) he couldn’t help laughing at the local zanies and regain his fighting form. Sizing up his sordid new environs, he got down to work on the songs that would manifest in the exhilarating Fear Fun, an instant classic of sonic country honk-rock, with vaguely sinister undertones.
Fun times in Babylon / It’s what I’m counting on / Look out Hollywood here I come
Fear Fun was bound to be a peculiar album. I tore it open and stared at the cultish illustrated cover—a blue-haired, coffee-drinking wizard flanked by a bevy of batshit disciples—and thought, “Who the hell is Father John Misty?” But I instantly recognized the punch of a deadly determined artist with a whimsical view of our crumbling world and the glorious whack-jobs in it. The songs are shrewdly crafted gems, performed by a crack band that Tillman discovered through Jonathan Wilson’s Echo Park recording compound. A lacerating dry wit snakes throughout this record; the arrangements are clear-headed but subtly complex, with a savvy mix by Phil Ek.
Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones / Couldn’t give me a myth / So I had to write my own
Back in the van with a new album, the Father John Misty extravaganza rolled under the Hudson into NYC in May for gigs in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Before then he debuted “Only Son of the Ladiesman” on David Letterman’s show, where Dave blatantly gushed his approval and invited himself along for the rest of Misty’s tour. So even the world-weary Letterman was powerless to resist FJM’s seductive spell.
I’ll just call this what it is / My vanity gone wild with my crisis
At his Mercury Lounge show, Tillman played drums first for opener Har Mar Superstar, then did a quick turnaround to headline his own midnight set. His use of a nom de plume helped liberate his performance on stage, as it had done on record. I asked him if he was buzzed about stepping back to center stage after four years behind the skins with Fleet Foxes, and he confided to me in an e-mail from Paris, “Whether I am behind a drum set or not, I am always upfront in my mind. That’s the true and ugly nature of a born performer.”
That Lower East Side gig proved that the Fear Fun songs were road-ready and that Tillman’s voice and amusing stage patter could command rapt attention from the room. His band was young, but they played as if they’d been working these new songs for years. The sound was rich and hypnotic. So the freshly inspired J. Tillman has turned his artistic ship around, and his enthusiasm is clearly infectious.
Try not to think too much about / The truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record
After seven disquieting solo records whose menacing acoustic dirges could stagger Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Tillman has lifted off into a whole new energy realm. On Fear Fun, instead of his tortured inner landscape, he goes after oddball Hollywood. Not the “Hollywood” of the movie business, but the creeping avenues, bars, and bungalows that are the playpen of its cast-offs and climbers; charlatans, perverts, and hypocrites.
If I make it out alive / From Hollywood and Vine / I’ll build a cabin up in the Northwest