I’ll be the first to admit, that when I first heard that Tillman, who’s most recent gig was the drummer/arranger for a little band by the name of Fleet Foxes was releasing a solo album, my interest wasn’t exactly piqued. Not to beat a dead horse, but 2011’s Helplessness Blues was at best a tired exercise in overly beardmotive mountain songs that went nowhere, said nothing, and except for a few moments of sonic beauty (which was to be expected) failed to deliver in every conceivable way. At its worst…well I guess it’s a quick trip to the bottom from there isn’t it?
So color me surprised when upon hearing Fear Fun few weeks ago (read our review here) I found that it wasn’t just good, but that it was everything I had wanted that second Fleet Foxes record to be and more. Fear Fun burst to life with tales of drugs, debauchery, and confessions of insecurity. But instead of being the sexless, dreary affair that was Helplessness Blues, Tillman injected a sense of humanity, humor and confidence deep into the DNA of his songs and in the process turned out one hell of a sexy record, even despite its beirdness.
Kicking off the show Sunday night with the bad-trip/country slow burn of “I’m Writing a Novel”, Tillman and his band proceeded to deliver a truly Thompson-esque performance as refracted through some weird Hollywood lens - or at least some weird literary approximation of it. Fearless and unhinged, Tillman “shook his shit” through nearly every track on Fear Fun, taking longish breaks between each song to engage, or as he said, “understand” the audience.
The set itself was relatively short, but it’s intensity continued to burn increasingly brighter right up until the very end. On tracks like “ Well You Can Do It Without Me “, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “This Is Sally Hatchet” the band explored a darker, almost Doors-ian sound, as Tillman pitched about the stage, throwing out his best Morrison-ian yawps. While clearly studied, it highlighted Tillman’s skill as an entertainer, even more so when you consider the ease with which he and his band were able to shift gears . The track “Now I’m Learning To Love The War”, whose opening line of “Try not to think so much about the truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record.” could have easily found it’s home on Nilsson Schmilsson or Aerial Ballet if only it had been written 30-40 years prior.
And those breaks between songs? Turns out, Joshua Tillman, in addition to being a hell of a songwriter, is also one funny mother f@#@er. One liners flowed out of him as effortlessly as the supernal tenor strains of “Only Son Of The Ladies’ Man”, and by the end of the evening Father John Misty had practically charmed the pants off of the sweaty crowd*, but it wasn’t just the humor. It wasn’t just the songwriting or the shaking of his shit. It was the whole package.
There’s a good bit of snark and misdirection in Tillman’s performance (and songs) that would lead one to wonder where the man ends and the art begins. But that ability to blur the lines between fact and fiction, confession and manipulation, heart and intellect - that’s the hallmark of any great artist. The things that elevate art from mere exposition to something…other. And whether he is performing his own songs, or those of Waylon Jennings – as he did in the “unprecedented” encore of “Laid Back Country Picker” and “Donna On My Mind” – Tillman is in possession of, and executes on, those abilities in spades.
In the aforementioned “I Am Writing A Novel”, he shouts “My reality is realer than yours!” at the subjects of his narrative. While they may indeed be forced to get out of the way of his hallucinatory soul expansion, we luckily do not. We're allowed to hang out out and see all of the joy, wreckage and fun that makes up Father John Misty's "universe". And while I wouldn't want to live their, I gotta say, it's one hell of a place to visit.
*(I received a text mid show that read ”Will you throw some panties for me? Thanks.”. I will neither confirm nor deny that this came from my significant other.)