The Passion & Paradox of Father John Misty
Charged Austin City Limits taping rivals a TED talk
By Doug Freeman,
11:30AM, Wed. Aug. 23, 2017
When Josh Tillman first played the ACL Festival as Father John Misty in 2012, he pretended he was filming an episode of Austin City Limits, complete with the usual reveal of having grown up watching the show. The brief, between-song schtick – like the set itself – came off both awkward and brilliant.
Tillman had, in fact, already appeared on the famed television series the year before – as drummer for the Fleet Foxes. Subsequently, his sardonic Father John Misty persona dismantled the abject sincerity of that folk-rock outfit, calling bullshit on the seriousness of the entire blog-pushed indie music complex that had risen over the previous decade.
Debut LP Fear Fun struck a powerfully ironic stance complicated by immaculate melodies and crystalline vocals. In taking shots at his contemporaries and even his own solo songwriting work as J. Tillman, Father John Misty constructed something much better and more resonant. His invitation to perform on the local television show now after the release of his third album, this year’s Pure Comedy, proved peak paradox to the strange, meteoric ascendance of Father John Misty.
Leading a 13-piece horn and string section assembled from local musicians, including Tosca Strings, the main attraction turned his Tuesday night taping into a dramatic spectacle. A core, eight-piece backing band followed the bandleader’s cue in donning suits. A fully-bearded Tillman emerged in a black sport coat, slacks, and slippers.
Opening with the first four songs from the new album – “Pure Comedy,” “Total Entertainment Forever,” “Things it Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” and “Ballad of the Dying Man” – the singer drew a smattering of laughter from all three brimming tiers of ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Crooning ballads, enhanced by the symphonic swell, tenderly opined the fall of culture and society both present and future, Tillman soft-shoeing and twirling around the stage. Following “Revolution,” he looked back at the outline of the city behind him.
“There was no budget for the cartoon flames behind the cartoon buildings that I wanted for that song,” he quipped with a broad smile.
That comment perfectly encapsulates Tillman’s whole pose.
Nothing is sacred, everything’s just pretend anyway. We’re not just all in on the joke, the entire thing is a joke. And the host leads both factions merrily.
Tillman’s sincerity in pushing the role to its full capacity, committing to the bit like Andy Kaufman or Sacha Baron Cohen, makes it work. That and perfectly crafted pop. Set to sublime, classic American songbook arrangements, Father John Misty offers his own sacrifice, crucifying himself with his insecurities and failings, while simultaneously making them all of our failings.
A 36-year Maryland native who grew up in a poly-religious household, Tillman plays the post-ironic shaman saving us not from our sins, but delivering them back to us packaged in the popular culture we’ve embraced as enlightenment. In “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” the narrator pleads with his maker:
“You must not know the first thing about human beings. We’re the Earth’s most soulful predator. Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored.”
Cornerstone of the set taping was the ambling, 13-minute “Leaving L.A.,” wherein Tillman stood centerstage solo and acoustic, only the string section remaining as backing. The ballad, reckoning the ridiculous trajectory of his own career, called out all pretense around and within him, and recognized the irony of his success with fans whose idols he casually slays. Few artists have ever achieved such perfectly mocking disdain and extreme self-awareness, maybe only Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman.
Onstage, Tillman strikes through every pop pose and trope, dropping to his knees in emotional pleas, sashaying with abandon, and delivering lyrical diatribes as if he were giving a TED talk. For closing highlight “I Love You, Honeybear,” the title track to his 2015 sophomore album, Tillman waltzed into the crowd hugging fans, which brought the balcony to its feet, arms raised in exultation. That fused the audience even more to Father John Misty, a cult leader preaching our inherent fallibility and doom with complex, angelic melodies.