Few musicians of Josh Tillman's generation can claim a hand in both the construction and deconstruction of a musical genre. But after achieving inarguable success with modernist folkies Fleet Foxes, Tillman appears to have felt his arms had taken him as far as they could. Naturally, he decided to put his hips to work instead. Enter Father John Misty: ROCK STAR, Tillman's nom de plume, a self-characterization meant to reveal little or nothing, depending on what he's 'fessing up to that day.
Father John Misty plays the Neptune on January 27 and 29.
Who can blame him? In a TMI age, it's nearly impossible to build a good rock 'n' roll myth. It is both a blessing and a curse that we will never have another Led Zeppelin—we need those legends about Legends. They exist to shape culture and drive young artists. By adapting the Father John Misty persona, Tillman has been able to dabble in both personal revelation and performance art—and of course unaccountability, and what his critics will call "copping out."
Both Bob Dylan and Lou Reed—back when his week was better than your year—aptly played heightened self-image to their advantage. It's hard not to think they would be somewhat less iconic had their eras been cursed with omnipresent Twitter accounts. And as much as he plays with the idea, Tillman is certainly reverent toward rock and its mythology—namely the balmy, mystic aura surrounding Los Angeles musical mecca Laurel Canyon. On Fear Fun, this year's wonderfully named debut, Tillman packs up the tools he learned in Fleet Foxes and sets up camp in his own piece of the Canyon, a fictitious piece of cosmic real estate once owned by Jackson Browne, now leased to him by Don Henley, and inhabited by the ghosts of Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison, Harry Nilsson, and (whom one can only guess to be a very bored) Tupac Shakur.
Yes, Tupac. As much as Fear Fun is a musical novel—the songs are practically chapters—the power of the record resides in its rhythms, which are dance-oriented and ultramodern and add a deliberate cadence to the sort of narrative you generally find in hip-hop. In an interview earlier this year, Tillman told me the songs were dictated, not written down—not hard to imagine, as they suggest him laying down verses over the beats in his head. He applies this philosophy to the '70s-AM-radio and SoCal-country scenes for a record full of bizarro hip-hop/honky-tonk hybrids.
The lyrical content does not disappoint, either. On "I'm Writing a Novel," a tripping, balls-out (perhaps literally) Tillman determines he must murder his inner Neil Young to the tune of "The Ballad of John and Yoko" if he's ever gonna "write the real." Eloquent kiss-off track "Well, You Can Do It Without Me" holds up as a poem on its own. Not one to shy away from melodrama, Tillman goes from folk to disco within a chorus, transforming "Nancy From Now On" into the greatest Eagles song you've never heard. His trip takes a heavy turn on "Now I'm Learning to Love the War" as he contemplates the environmental impact of the arts.
If the record has "a single," it's "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings." A lush, dirty track full of disjointed guitar work, it proves above all else that what Tillman has really lifted from hip-hop and applied to Father John Misty is swagger. It's a reverberating, bump-and-grind backlash to the trail of predecessors who took Fleet Foxes' very pure and purposeful musical statement and watered it down to a hand-holding soundtrack for tweens whose visions of male genitals are still modeled after Ken dolls. It's this attitude that makes Fear Fun Cialis for a nearly neutered genre, and sets the bar for the next wave of futuristic folk releases.