May 16th, Boston, MA – There were guns, crucifixes, Adderall and weed. There was bondage, sequestered binge drinking, self-mutilation and spiritual surrendering—well, not entirely. Taking the stage at Brighton City Music Hall later than scheduled and initially behind the drum set for the opener Ha Mar Superstar (songwriter Sean Matthew Tillman’s Ron Jeremy-esque R&B alter-ego), J. Tillman greeted the crowd casually, but quickly indulged in on-stage banter. After the exaggeratedly sexualized opening act—which included dancing on the bar, a striptease, and his pop hit I need a Tall Boy—, the former Fleet Foxes drummer took the stage again, this time leading his newly formed band and as lead-singer. Explaining that he rarely plays in Boston proper but more commonly “over there by MIT in Cambridge where the military-industrial complex has perfected its most successful patent, the revolving door,” Tillman and the band performed the entirety of their newly released album Fear Fun. The overall tone of the music was true to the record—which has been described by Rolling Stone as “a compelling whirl of Laurel Canyon-echo balladry and desolate-psychedelia stomp”—but yet still benefited from the spontaneity that is supposed to accompany a live performance. In fact, the only possible source of disenchantment came from Father John Misty’s diatribes against the audience and his sesquipedalian ramblings. However, given that they were similar to those he made recently on his appearance at KCRW—which you can access here—, it’s hard to think that it was anything more than part of the show and done entirely by design. Which begs the question, why?
In an interview with LA Weekly, he explains that he adopted the moniker of Father John Misty partly as a way to escape what he felt was a growing and self-imposed entrapment to his songwriting and also as a coy reference to cocaine (as in the Led Zeppelin song Misty Mountain Hop), and his lifelong contentious quest with spirituality—as he sings in Every Man Needs a Companion, for instance “[…] I got hung-up on religion – I know it’s a waste. I never liked the name Joshua – I got tired of J”. It’s a new beginning.
With respect to the album, there are a range of topics covered as well as clever storytelling. It’s a rich multilayered collection of songs that offers imagerial lyricism throughout. The three singles that were released prior to the album were Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings, Nancy From Now On, and the Beatlesque Sally Hatchet. And each has been treated to a stylist achievement of a video—but they all share the debaucheries an alt-Americana lifestyle fueled by the conventional counter-culture comforts of booze, sex, smoke and guns. And each is an outright success both artistically and in intrigue.
Regardless of how you find the self-indulgent ramblings, the flamboyant gesticulations, and the unapologetic arrogance, there is no questioning the brilliance of the music. And that’s what’s important. Plus, there is a larger point being made. Tillman has stated that it ironically took an alter-ego for him to be comfortable enough to make his most sincere album to-date—although there is no shortage of sarcasm or hyperbole. In other words, taking yourself too seriously is suffocating. Quoting American Novelist Philip Roth, Tillman has stated: “[Father John Misty is] all me and none of me, if you can’t see that, you won’t get it. What I call it is totally arbitrary, but I like the name. You’ve got to have a name. I never got to chose mine.”
The highlight of the concert was without a doubt the music. And while Father John Misty’s antics received mixed reactions, his exaggerated arrogance served to remind us that maybe Fear Fun’s greatest conceptual achievement is its irreverence. It reminds us of how difficult it can be to live with our own expectations. And Father John Misty is J. Tillman’s incarnation of that idea—and it should be taken as such. There is liberation in rejecting what we told ourselves we had to be.
You can find the album streaming here