In January, J. Tillman announced he was leaving Fleet Foxes. “Back into the gaping maw of obscurity I go,” the drummer declared at the time. And obscurity’s maw bit down hard. Soon after leaving Fleet Foxes, Tillman entered into an immobilizing period of depression which caused him to lose “all interest in writing music, or identifying as a ‘songwriter’.” Following a serious bout of soul-searching, house-moving, mushroom-taking and novel-writing, Tillman started to rediscover his voice again, only this time as the mysterious Father John Misty, a moniker that Tillman claims represents “all of me and none of me.”
Befuddling oxymorons aside, adopting a new pseudonym for an album which feels so very separate from Tillman’s previous solo work seems like an apt move. Gone is the self-stamped “wound-licking,” replaced instead by “humour, sex and mischief.”
Indeed, Father John Misty is irresistibly hedonistic and Fear Fun possesses the power to undress you at any given moment. Lead-single, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” is an overwhelmingly immediate, ricocheting epic about getting it on in a graveyard (really), while “Nancy From Now On” – whose melody, if you listen closely, sports a Smile-like decadence (and is that a quasi-funk chorus?) – recently came complete with a video starring a dominatrix, earning it the “NSFW” status that Misty undoubtedly ached for.
“Tea Pees 1-12” continues the heady seduction – “You took me to your warehouse, tied up in the back of your van, you said ‘whip it out,’ and I started to shout ‘I’m in love with the woman again!‘” – only this time set to a cliché country arrangement that cackles with irony. In fact, there is a great deal of country indulgence throughout Fear Fun and this surely explains why Tillman professed in the press release: “I was honest with myself about what music actually excites my joy-glands when I was considering the arrangements and instrumentation.” Numbers like “I’m Writing A Novel,” “Well You Can Do It Without Me” and “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” conceal warm and wise melodies which, upon slow-burn, evoke the halcyon soundscapes of Waylon Jennings, Harry Nilsson, Gram Parsons and even The Band.
But it is album highlight, “This Is Sally Hatchet,” which really revs up the sonic salutes. Here, Tillman practically paraphrases the entire Beatles post-’67 discography, blending the staccato guitar tones of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” sorcerous lyricism of “Polythene Pam” (“Sally Hatchet lives in a hole in the ground, the longer it keeps raining the more she has to struggle to maintain a wonderful time”) and orchestral crescendos of “I Am The Walrus” and “A Day In The Life” into the one, surprisingly un-sacrilegious track.
No matter how fast Tillman’s bare feet may carry him, he will not yet escape the Fleet Foxes name, and his stretch in the Seattle band still lingers in the air of the likes of “Funtimes in Babylon” and “Only Son of the Ladiesman,” the latter of which rings like Robin Pecknold at his most passionate. But still, I feel uncomfortable referring to Tillman’s role in the Foxes in this context, so I shall leave these comparisons here.
Fear Fun couldn’t be a more suitable title for an album that reeks of both unease and brazen intrepidity. Musically, it doesn’t push boundaries – rather, it stays well within them – but Tillman is not looking to mind-boggle with aural complexities. And anyway, there is something curiously twisted about jarring comforting sounds with what is, at times, very discomforting emotions.
I began this review pondering what Tillman meant when he said Father John Misty was “all of me and none of me.” Upon reflection, I feel closer to understanding this paradox. Misty is, on one hand, Tillman’s devilish doppelgänger, anarchistic alter-ego, sadistic second-self, but on the other, he simply stands for a man who is finally exposing his marrow. With Fear Fun, Tillman abandons his previous inclination to alienate himself from his listeners, to instead…just…be. And going on this frankly awesome album – that was all he ever needed to do.