Father John Misty – Fear Fun
t’s hard to imagine a world without music’s foremost loveable troll, Father John Misty. He goes by many names but whether you know him as Josh Tillman, J. Tillman, or Father John Misty, he has been confounding critics and fans for more than a decade now. Today we’re going to look all the way back to where it began for FJM, the 2012 debut album Fear Fun. This album was in heavy rotation for me for a few years, but with subsequent releases, it has kinda been bumped out of the order. Listening to it again in it’s entirety brings me back to when I first discovered the album. It was the only Father John Misty music available, so I played the shit out of it. I can remember what it felt like to hear these songs for the first time, a time when it was completely new, before it became my favorite album of the 2010s.
Upon listening to the album in order and in full for the first time in a while, it’s become apparent to me how much of my initial impression of Tillman as a snarky cynic was not the whole picture. Behind the irony, witticisms and sardonic lyrics, are introspective and often self-deprecating observations. Early on, Tillman was often portrayed as a bit of a jester poking fun at the royal court (music journalists and industry bigwigs) but as time as gone on, and with the context if his subsequent albums, his observations have been revealed to be biting and poignant commentaries on celebrity, and the self-importance of those who have both sought and have achieved it.
Take for example “Fun Times In Babylon” where it seems apparent to me that he’s making a direct comparison of Hollywood and the entertainment industry to the depravity and excess of Babylon as well and historic abuses by people in power. Yet, even with those comparisons, he still headed to Hollywood to attempt a career in the industry he writes so disparagingly about. Reminds me a bit of this much over-used quote form Hunter S. Thompson:
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
-Hunter S. Thompson
Tillman’s snark, however, is not just reserved for others. When he initially left the Pacific Northwest for California, it was to write a novel. In the aptly named song, “I’m Writing a Novel” he takes aim squarely at himself and other novelists’ who think that what they are doing is something new and important, singing ‘And I’m writing a novel, because it’s never been done before.” This song also includes a true story of an ayahuasca trip with a Canadian shaman that found him naked in an oak tree where he says he got his first clear view of himself. As far as self-discoveries go, that’s a pretty epic one!
The album as a whole is fantastic, but there are a few other stand out moments for me. On “Well, You Can Do it Without Me” he seemingly takes aim at his former band, the Fleet Foxes and announces his own arrival as a solo artist. In one of the more meta moments of the album, “Now I’m Learning To Love The War” he laments the ravages of consumerism and the cost of making and distributing records, the very medium he’s releasing the music on.
The album closes with my favorite song from the album, “Everyman Needs a Companion.” I’m not usually one to ascribe meaning to someone else’s lyrics, but I can’t help with this one. First, notice he uses “everyman” instead of “every man”, knowing how particular Tillman is with his lyrics, I can’t help but think that this is intentional. He’s not saying that every single man needs a companion, but rather that the colloquial “everyman” does. Merriam-Webster defines everyman as “the typical or ordinary person” and it’s often a trope used in storytelling that allows readers/viewers to identify with the character. I feel like he’s commenting that before the reinvention of himself as Father John Misty, he was an everyman. He had searched for himself in the philosophy of Joseph Campbel, the music of The Rolling Stones, and even his religious ubpringing, but it wasn’t untill he grew tired of who he was as Joshua and his previous songwriting pen name of J. Tillman, that he really discovered himself. Turns out the companion he needed was his alter ego.
it wasn’t untill he grew tired of who he was as Joshua and his previous songwriting pen name of J. Tillman, that he really discovered himself. Turns out the companion he needed was his alter ego.
Boy, that was a journey, but when an artist takes on a stage name, it’s often as a way to escape who they are in their day to day lives. A way to disassociate from the troubles of relationships, responsibilities, and the banalities of life. Sometimes though, an artist’s creative identity is the “real” version of them. I’d argue that imaginary character of Father John Misty is the fully formed version Josh Tillman. Through FJM, he has truly found himself. Ten years later, Fear Fun feels like the first steps on the journey of self-actualization that continues in the albums that follow and I, for one, can’t wait ti see where it goes next.
HOW DOES IT HOLD UP?
Throughout the decade (and even in this review) Father John Misty has been described over and over again as sardonic, cynical, satirical, derisive, ironic, and more. But no matter what you think of the mythos of Tillman and his FJM persona, it’s undeniable that his music is more than just a tongue-in-cheek jape. Through the snark and wit, there’s real introspection and self-awareness that’s often lacking in music. It’s been 10 years since Fear Fun first hit my ears, and with the context of how his music evolved on subsequent albums, I think I like it even more.