Thursday, May 24, 2012

Album Review: Father John Misty - Fear Fun

I have to admit that upon first listening to Father John Misty's debut Fear Fun, I was left unimpressed. It may have been my high expectations. After all, the band was formed by singer J. Tillman, who played drums in Fleet Foxes and left that band to pursue this project. Fear Fun is a classic grower and with repeated spins, it has become one of the year's most rewarding albums. These songs need to be intimately absorbed as a whole. In this manner, you really start to understand this collection of stories telling the trials and tribulations of trying to "make it" and the things one does to survive. These are Tillman's tales of self-deprecation and self-destruction written under the guise of Father John Misty and filtered through the smoke and booze of the thousands of rock 'n' roll icons that came before him.

Opener "Funtimes in Babylon" sets the scene in Laurel Canyon as Tillman warns over a gentle acoustic landscape, "Look out Hollywood, here I come." He retains the highly literate songwriting of Fleet Foxes but takes it in a different direction. This album is as much indebted to Charles Bukowski as it is The Beatles. You can think of Father John Misty as J. Tillman's Henry Chinaski. Much like Bukowski’s writing, one moment you’re laughing along with the character and the next you are deeply concerned for him. Case in point, "Nancy From Now On", which opens with a simple request sung in a nonchalant yet elegant manner, "Oh pour me another drink / And punch me in the face / You can call me Nancy." This line also frames one of the albums most endearing qualities; its inability to take itself too seriously.

The diversity and strength of these 12 tracks reminds me of when Dave Grohl came out from behind the kit and everyone realized that there was a man back there who can seriously write a song. The crunchy stomp of "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" shows the ability of Father John Misty to establish a mood perfect for a track's narrative. The dark atmosphere is underlined with blasts of distortion and lines like "Jesus Christ, girl / What are people gonna think / When I show up to one of several funerals / I've attended for grandpa this week / With you / With me / Someone's got to help me dig."

The tongue-in-cheek country hoedown of "I'm Writing a Novel" lifts spirits back up and allows Tillman to poke fun at his own ambitions stating, "I'm writing a novel because it's never been done before." On the gospel laden “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” and album standout "Only Son of the Ladiesman" the influence of Tillman's previous band is allowed to shine through. The latter contains a plodding rhythm and lush harmonies that can rival any of the Fleet Foxes arrangements.

He doesn't shy away from showing who his musical heroes are on tracks like "This is Sally Hatchet" aka “This is me desperately wanting to sound like John Lennon". The song ends in a swirling saga of strings that recalls "A Day in the Life". "Now I'm Learning to Love the War" is yet another dark turn away from the carefree folk that comprises much of the album. His highly acute self-awareness allows him to examine the futility of his efforts, "Try not to think so much about / The truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record / All the shipping, the vinyl, the cellophane lining / The high gloss / The tape and the gear." This dichotomy makes the record as a whole much more compelling.

In its closing moments, the album's purpose is revealed: "Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones / Couldn't give me a myth / So I had to write my own." He had laid everything out in the preceding tracks and is now ready to admit that "every man needs a companion." The resulting song can serve as a companion piece to Neil Young's "A Man Needs a Maid". The album closes as it began; beautifully candid and revealing while taking many liberties that pay off handsomely. Remember when freak-folk was both freaky and folksy? Thankfully, J. Tillman does.

4.0 / 5.0

Favorite Track: "Only Son of the Ladiesman"

Father John Misty also has three of the best music videos of the year. I just wouldn't watch them at work...

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