Many of the words written about music in 2017 have been about Father John Misty. The heat level on the man is so high that Noisey seems to be in a constant state of breaking news with regards to him. Each of his tweets are reported with more than 140 characters on Stereogum.
The Tale of Tillman has been repeated over and over since he rose into view from years in the template of a modern folk artist, both solo as J. Tillman and as the drummer of Fleet Foxes. Raised sequestered in suburban fundamentalist Christianity, breaking free to the Pacific Northwest to bake bread during the day and write fantastical acoustic poetry at night, only to find the permission to ‘be me’ under the guidance of psychedelic drugs. While told often, the story is as complex as the man who wrote it. The result is one of the most profoundly inventive artists of the 21st century. And one who baffles even the Misty completists who adore him. Is he a compelling construct of entertainment chicanery? A character with overclocked charisma concocting a modern patois? An irresistible smoothie of Jungian archetypes poured into a tight black suit? An aviator-shaded bard for the post-hipster era? As we learn more about this Misty fella, we realized that we were not seeing Tillman’s indulgent mask of bourgeois frustration. We are witnessing him slowly distilling to his 200-proof self. This is a conscious man who comes to the stage with just as much, if not more, fear, disillusionment, sadness and baggage as any other self-aware person does. But far from whinging on social media, Tillman builds sprawling narratives around his bones of contention.
As the fan-chosen voice of passive revolutionaries in the post 100-day era of Trump, Misty, Christian-named Joshua Michael Tillman 36 years ago, sensed the modern zeitgeist with hair-width precision. And while not feverishly written in the wee hours of November 8th, Tillman foresaw this vague future in advance. More than a mere witness, he collected the two-toned fear of both sides as he crisscrossed North America and Europe. Condensing it in the best way he could, Pure Comedy is his précis. It delivers heavy messages, yet is riddled with sweet moments. Pure Comedy’s songs are a cycle of the hypocrisy of humans and our beliefs versus our actions, entertainment technology ruling and ultimately destroying us, life after the fall of industry and commerce, narcissism, religion, the power of love, neoliberal global politics and existential dread. Not even halfway through this year, many are calling this album its best. Misty’s George Martin is Laurel Canyon musician and producer, Jonathan Wilson. Wilson has elevated Father John Misty’s lyrics with some of the most purposeful, lush production of the decade. To support Pure Comedy the best way possible, Tillman designed a concert performance that was more theatre than music. It was deep into planning with costumes, dancers, props and sets before he decided to pull the plug. While likely for the best from a logistical standpoint, fans wonder hard about how Pure Comedy may have looked as a stage production. The result of this aborted plan was that Father John Misty had already booked theatres capable of mounting a show for the spring tour. The outcome was being able to see a concert in an unlikely and storied venue.
In Toronto, it was the Royal Alexandra Theatre, a locale better known for staging national productions of Mamma Mia! and Kinky Boots to blue hairs. To add to the long list of classic performers like the Marx Brothers, Orson Wells, Lucille Ball and Édith Piaf, Josh Tillman hit the stage for two nights in May. Backed with his usual band of virtuosi (Dan Bailey on drums, Eli Thompson on bass and keyboard, Dave Vandervelde on pedal steel, guitar and keys, Chris Darley on guitar, Kyle Flynn on keyboards and Jon Titterington on piano), this tour added a 15-piece horn and string section to reproduce the rich orchestrations on Pure Comedy. As with this run of shows, the set began with the first seven songs off Pure Comedy (leaving out Tillman’s 13-minute, 10-verse, no-chorus personal deep dive, Leaving LA). Tillman was strong in his voice, and despite a couple forgetful moments was confident behind this new material. This portion ended with a staggering version of the beautiful angry-with-God tune, When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay, accompanied with just piano and strings. The set concluded with material from his previous two albums, Fear Fun and the breakthrough I Love You Honeybear.
He’s well known for engaging in what he has called a psychodrama between himself and the first few rows. His conversation with the audience is generally jocular and sharp-witted. However Tillman was far more reserved than as is customary. First-show-of-tour nerves were a reason, but as well, working through this new set of songs required less time for banter than usual. Tillman did finally speak at length to the crowd before beginning a four song encore. The audience expectedly, responded boisterously. There don’t seem to be a lot of grey-area opinions of Father John Misty. The love is wide and deep and the lesser remnant is derision. The atmosphere at previous FJM concerts I have attended was unquestionably estrogenic. Short of underfashions being tossed on stage (which I’m sure has happened in the dozens), the energy of the room leans feminine and virtually bro-free. When he actually offered a Q & A, the best question asked for his Social Security number. Tillman turned in a beat and replied “Are you after my folk bucks? No one’s taking my folk bucks”. Forgivably, his patter is occasionally reused, but nonetheless, greatly amusing. Unfortunately, calls for the Father John Misty Variety Hour fall on deaf ears. This is a man who reportedly turned down an audition for a role on the second season of Stranger Things and responded to an quarter million dollar offer to sing The Backstreet Boys’ hit, I Want It That Way for a Chipotle commercial with “Keep your fucking burrito money”. To Father John Misty, money and greater fame isn’t an allure. He found a segue out of the question period through an intro into his poignant Bored In The USA. He finished the night with two expositions. The first, The Memo details Misty’s plans to infiltrate the modern entertainment establishment. The last song of the night, Holy Shit, is a scattershot of contemporary ideas about identity, fulfillment and love written on his wedding day. The band played again the next night and proved their professionalism. The leap in comfort and quality of Tillman’s voice was obvious. He played his intended setlist on the second night, debuting So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain and In Twenty Years or So. Tillman said his goodnight and stood patiently smiling and waving as he accepted his applause and cheers from a clearly moved audience.
Father John Misty returns to Toronto on September 18th