Over the past six years, Josh Tillman has directed a quietly prolific career, releasing seven albums while holding down responsibilities as the drummer of the wildly successful band Fleet Foxes. Tillman’s eighth album comes under the new moniker Father John Misty and sees release on Seattle’s SubPop label. The twelve songs on Fear Fun are professed by Tillman to be drug-inspired, written during a stint holed up in Laurel Canyon after a particularly dim chapter of his life. More importantly, the songs draw on vivid and terrifying biblical imagery, span musical styles including folk, country, psychedelia, and glam rock and recall groundbreaking artists such as Harry Nilsson, Leonard Cohen, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles.
For the first time in a long time, a musician has placed at the forefront of his aesthetic his personal relationship with sex and drugs. Here, it’s not just something we assume about our rock stars—Tillman openly discusses it in interviews and makes it the centerpiece of his songs and videos. It’s littered across the lyrics as on “Nancy From Now On” in which he sings, “Pour me a drink / Punch me in the face / You can call me Nancy.” The video for the song brings to mind John Lennon’s lost weekend and alcohol addled nights recording with Harry Nilsson. (Our friend Mark Baumgarten has written an intriguing commentary on the issue of substance usage and music on his blog here.) However, this traditional rock ‘n’ roll image is contrasted and bolstered by so many other inspirations that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
Tillman seems to have felt the same. So many of the songs as openers would be misleading for the record that follows, though the colorful and disturbing, cartoonish cover art holds some clues. He begins with “Funtimes in Babylon,” a sparse and aching folk song comprised of guitar, handclaps, and tambourine rounded out by background singers and Tillman’s vocals moving between his natural mid-range and falsetto. The song is the most stripped down and straightforward, but contains brief premonitions of what is to come. Tillman’s Father John Misty moniker that evokes images of some high priest of dark psychedelia is in full effect with lyrics like, “Before they put me to work in a government camp / Before they do my face up like a corpse and say get up and dance / Before the beast comes looking for last year’s rent.” Tillman begins a motif that paints Los Angeles as the modern day Babylon.
From here, the styles and influences go haywire. “Nancy From Now On” is an upbeat, skipping rollick of a song that would sound at home on Nilsson’s Aerial Ballet. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” follows in stark differentiation, employing driving drums, foreboding and clangy electric guitars, and Tillman’s somber voice offset by outrageous lyrics like “We should let this dead guy sleep.” The song’s refrain of “Someone’s gotta help me dig” apparently refers to making a grave for the subject of the song, startling the listeners with its morbid humor. But we’ll admit that the mourning in the vocal hook has us singing it right along with the Father. Track four, “I’m Writing A Novel,” begins with a reference to a shaman as the narrator runs screaming, naked down the street and contains the line, “We could do Ayahuasca / Baby, if I wasn’t holdin’ all these drinks.” Beyond this, the arrangement and sound of the song recalls The Beatles’ “Ballad of John and Yoko” or Cohen’s “Fingerprints” from Death of a Ladies Man.
The reality is that each track could have a paragraph, if not several pages, devoted to its lyrics and recording approach. The hints of sitar sound in the wild builds in the last minutes of “This Is Sally Hatchet” are notable, as are the sprawling biblical allusions and downright sweet chorus of closer “Everyman Needs a Companion.” In the final seconds of the album, Tillman croons, “Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones couldn’t give me a myth so I had to write my own.” The artist in his own words provides an apt descriptor for the scope of the album.
With Fear Fun Tillman has tapped into sounds and themes universal and classic, though perhaps not to everyone, but certainly to the creative geniuses he channels. More importantly, he manages to invoke these artists while maintaining his own unique voice. Fans of Fleet Foxes may pick up this record and be pleased and entertained, but will undoubtedly underestimate the true depth of the myriad levels ripe for dissection and musical appreciation.