Father John Misty is many things, and it’s also nothing at all. It’s just a name that Josh Tillman settled on as a means to an end: To differentiate Misty’s music from J. Tillman, his other alter-ego that he’s been steadily releasing music under since 2005. And there’s also Tillman’s three-year shift as the drummer/backing vocalist in Fleet Foxes, a gig that took him around the world and to the top of the charts. But Tillman left the Foxes in Seattle, took off for L.A., and he chronicles it all as Father John Misty in Fear Fun.
All these wardrobe changes can be confusing for fans, but the smoke-and-mirrors certainly allow the artist to travel in new directions. As Misty, Tillman is all about the truth, no matter how bleak, unflattering, or self-serving. Fear Fun, as Misty describes it, is a collection of “weird-ass songs about weird-ass experiences” that he wrote “almost in real-time” as he navigated his new environment in L.A. It’s hard not to compare Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues and Fear Fun since they were made with a lot of the same personnel and instrumentation. But whereas Helplessness lived up to its title through a narrator that found inspiration in leaving childish things behind, Misty treads the same notions of spirituality in a decidedly earthier manner: through the bottom of a bottle, the smoke of a pipe, or the hallucinated conversations with Heidegger and Sartre. It’s a strange, strange trip.
“Look out, Hollywood, here I come,” Misty cheekily warns on opener “Fun Times In Babylon,” but by song three we’re already helping him dig a grave on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” The record delights in this back-and-forth between light and dark, possibly a sonic manifestation of the City of Angels itself. As he’s working on a novel (“’Cause it’s never been done before,” Misty quips), his life erupts into a bluesy fever dream, name-checking the similar-minded Neil Young meltdown record On The Beach. 1970s musical touchstones pop up repeatedly, from bongos and acidic guitars to pedal steels and lilting acoustic melodies.
Fear Fun’s highs and lows are all captured with a lyrical sense of detail. The subject of the elegiac “Only Son of a Ladies Man” is a “steady hand and a Dodgers fan”—equal parts high-minded and run-of-the-mill. A dark Chinese New Year’s Eve acts as the setting to “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2.” On top of the loping country-rock, Misty executes a deft turn-of-phrase as the song’s refrain: “Gonna take my life / Gonna take my life back one of these days.” That ambiguous sentiment keeps with the messy overall themes of the record. Misty is constantly wrangling with his new town: it’s an American Eden or Sodom and Gomorrah, depending on the point-of-view.
In “Now I’m Learning to Love the War,” he questions the very minutiae that goes into releasing physical music. Forget the 1 AM shows and press junkets—there’s so much oil that powers an album, from the raw vinyl, cellophane, and high gloss to shipping the record across the country. That’s a heady thought, or it’s just a toss-off from another rock star on a soapbox. He’s seen the toll firsthand, though, as a member of a very successful band. Fear Fun finds Misty indulging in all that societal darkness, yet he’s at least self-aware enough to shine a light on his own bullshit. “Let’s just call this what it is,” he bellows, “the jealous side of mankind’s death wish.” All the handwringing aside, Misty finds some solace in a future self. As the strings die down, he assuredly sings, “When it’s my time to go / Gonna leave behind things that won’t decompose.”
By the time “Every Man Needs A Companion” hits, Misty has had enough of all the fun and “fun” he’s sung about. The reference to Neil Young’s “A Man Needs A Maid” is certainly deliberate, but Misty doesn’t need someone to clean up the mess he’s made; he needs an equal. He followed his bliss, just like Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones did. Misty had to make up his own myths, from name changes to a move to the mythmaking capital of the world. Amidst it all, there’s Joshua Tillman at the eye of the storm, restless as ever in his search for truth, a good time, a new name. He’s everyman, and he’s no man.