Father John Misty and the Honest Showman’s Code
Released in May, Father John Misty’s record Fear Fun caught my ear from the first time I heard the opening lyric of “Nancy From Now On” (“Pour me another drink, and punch me in the face, you can call me Nancy”) and its gleefully cheesy 70s-lite groove. I quickly grew to appreciate Josh Tillman’s great singing, his alternately tender and scathingly funny lyrics, the tight but breezy instrumentation, and the warm Jonathan Wilson production. My engagement level stayed there for a while: liking the record and recommending it to a couple of people who asked what I’d been listening to, but certainly not recognizing or thinking about any deeper significance it might have.
But then I belatedly caught a clip of FJM’s May performance of “Only Son of the Ladies Man” on the Letterman show. I couldn’t quite grasp what Tillman was trying to communicate through his funny, strangely arresting dances, gestures, and expressions, but I was mesmerized. Then I started reading about Tillman’s personal and artistic journey thus far, and it all made sense pretty quickly. And now I’m here to talk about why this record has, for me, recently gone from “very good” to “instant, inspiring classic,” and why it just might accomplish something a little more substantial than your average folky, trippy, classic rock-tinged record released in 2012.
For me, the greater value of Father John Misty boils down to Josh Tillman’s courageous embodiment of what I’m (utterly subjectively) naming and outlining as the Honest Showman’s Code. Using a few phrases from the man himself, this is the Honest Showman’s Code, as epitomized so grandly by Josh Tillman and Father John Misty:
1. Knock it out of the park, and not with a smirk. [As Tillman said before the band’s A.V. Club performance of the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?”]
It seems clear that this notion is what drives Tillman’s snazzy dance moves on stage as Father John Misty. The moment you step on stage, Tillman seems to reason, you’re a performer no matter what you do—so perform! Why not choose to shimmy and shake, grin and grimace, pump your fists, and mug for the audience if that’s what the spirit of the song moves you to do? Isn’t that actually the most “real” or “authentic” thing a performer can do—to stand on stage with arms open, rather than back turned, saying to the audience, “I’m giving you everything I’ve got”?
Tillman’s singing style as Father John Misty also seems to reflect this belief. If you go back and listen to his solo records as J. Tillman, he barely rose above a whisper most of the time. But now, he belts out every song on record and on stage, and he sounds all the better for it. The ubiquitous Roy Orbison comparisons may be slightly exaggerated, but only slightly. The man can sing.
The “not with a smirk” piece is key too. I appreciate that Tillman seems to reject both reflexively ironic posturing and sneering dismissiveness of anyone who dares enjoy something that doesn’t bear some or another seal of approval. Irony isn’t dead, nor should it ever be, and artistic merit is of course a critically important topic always worthy of discussion. Still, always having to be in on the joke, and gauging everything as a test of someone or something’s relative lameness, can get to be so damn stultifying and exhausting. Tillman’s dance moves and his singing voice both seem to say, “Piss on all that, do what you feel,” and I appreciate that very much.
2. Find your narrative voice and find something worth singing about. [As Tillman said in his Sub Pop promotional bio.]
Tillman’s lyrics on Fear Fun offer intricate narratives, moving imagery, laugh-out-loud humor and wit, and even a bit of unnerving environmental and cultural soothsaying (“Now I’m Learning to Love the War”). Tillman seems bound and determined to meet absurdity, even its destructive varieties, with a winning smile, even while offering a necessarily caustic comment on the ridiculous proceedings. Both the record’s narrative voice and Tillman’s personal journey are all about looking outward, toward people and places and events beyond himself, and attempting to engage with them even if, especially if, he is reasonably certain that inarticulate dissatisfaction will at least hover on the periphery of everything he’s doing. Because he’s done the alternative—saying “no thank you” and closing the door—and he knows good and well that it soon becomes little but slow death, coldly creeping up in the lamplight’s shadow. If the old J. Tillman records, and the old life of J. Tillman, were mostly about scrutinizing the interior life at sometimes excruciating detail, to no one’s benefit, then both Fear Fun and Tillman’s current expressions of self are the god-blessed opposite of all that. It’s all about chaos and color now (just look at that album cover!), kaleidoscopes rather than microscopes. That’s Josh Tillman’s narrative voice now, and that seems to be his worldview now, and it’s all sure as hell something “worth singing about.”
3. Give ‘em real shit. [A version of which Tillman said during his pointed Twitter discussion with PASTE Magazine’s Max Blau in May; h/t to the blog Thought on Tracks for a fine analysis of this discussion in its immediate aftermath]
Josh Tillman’s plea “GIMME REAL SHIT” actually referred to his feelings of distress over the state of music journalism in this era of blog posts that feature one crappy sentence and an embedded MP3, ad infinitum. It’s hard not to agree. For what it’s worth, I think we do something different here at TBTS, emerging from, dare I say, our inclination to enjoy thinking and writing about music and culture rather than just repackaging them and monitoring their trends. But enough of the self-promotion, which is bordering on “not real shit.”
Tillman’s words also shed light on Fear Fun, which certainly seems like his best effort to give the audience “real shit.” This piece of “the Code” shares much in common with a sterling quote from Amy Poehler about Parks and Recreation, my favorite TV show. Poehler loves her work on Parks and Rec because she is able “to play things real and have real feelings, and talk about themes like small towns, family, loyalty, commitment,” even as she and her crew give us TV’s smartest, sharpest, most note-perfect gently satirical comedy. In part, I love Father John Misty and Fear Fun so much because they’re striking that same delicate balance of sincerity, creativity, humor, and a welcome lack of both cynicism and sentimentalism in their expressions.
“Give ‘em real shit” is, in fact, a pretty good way to sum up the entirety of the Honest Showman’s Code, which I’ve presented here as a way of declaring my love for this artist and this record. Be genuine, the code would say. Try to both please and challenge the audience. Say something worthwhile, or interesting, or preferably both. Sing loud and dance if you feel the rhythm. If you have the choice at all, a smile will probably serve you better than a smirk. Above all, both the art and the artist should be real, and honest, and reflective of humanity, noble for its flaws. Hell, maybe more of us non-performers should adopt that code too.
Postscript: I’m not sure where this lunacy fits in the Code (pretty much everywhere, maybe?), but it’s a joyful, must-see parody of a 1970s Sammy Davis Jr. ad for Japanese whiskey. A showman indeed…perhaps with a future in acting?