Father John Misty’s conception may have begun when Josh Tillman fled his Seattle home, heading down the Pacific Coast carrying, as he puts it, “enough mushrooms to choke a horse.” Or it might have been months prior, when he ended his tenure as drummer of Fleet Foxes, just as the band was breaching new echelons of popularity. It could have even started years earlier, before that band’s formation in 2006, or in his career as a solo artist, recording different music under different names.
Whatever the timeline, the former background drummer has now transformed into a forefront figure, albeit under a semi-fictional guise, birthing one of the most interesting lyrical personas to crop up in recent memory. The singer-songwriter character behind Father John Misty is addled, anxious, and confused, with a sense of unease that suffuses Fear Fun. This fits, since this promising, at times frustrating, album is all about transformations and journeys, kidnappings and escapes, with characters that remain restless and yearning. It’s a condition typified in the opening passage of “Tee Pees 1-12,” whose narrative lurches from a first date to a van kidnapping to a joyful declaration of love, all in the first four lines.
It doesn’t hurt the album that there’s a healthy dose of mythology, both self-provided and past-rooted, to pad out its structure. After fleeing Seattle, Tillman ended up in Los Angeles, where he claims to have settled into a spider-infested “tree house” in Laurel Canyon. That storied neighborhood, home to the early-‘70s wonderland that nurtured post-folkies like Joni Mitchell and Carole King, has a lot of connotative weight behind it, but the sounds it evokes are only a small part of his repertoire. There are also hints of the black humor and depressive grandeur of ‘50s country, Harry Nilsson’s acerbic bitterness, even the discursive oddity of Dylan’s jangling fugues.
There’s also a more present influence hanging over Fear Fun: the lurking specter of Tillman’s former band, whose musical and vocal patterns show up strongly on a few tracks. “Nancy from Now On” and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” are both noticeably weakened by this similarity, departing from the other songs’ tumbling lyrical progression in favor of broad, shimmery passages. But these tangents are ultimately as important as the other elements, because they help identify the beginning and endpoints of Tillman’s transition, the lingering connections that he’s struggling to shake. As established in these 12 songs, the character of Father John Misty acts as a transitional phantom between the old Tillman and the new, an amorphous vagabond on his way to L.A., the trademark destination for people looking to be transfigured into something more than themselves. Tracks like opener “Funtimes in Babylon” assert this point, perhaps a little too directly, but do so with just the right amount of leavening wit, ending with a refrain like “Look out, Hollywood, here I come.”
The combination of weary but comic lyrical style and clearly earmarked influences makes for an album that’s almost fanatically aware of the many ingredients that go into making a record. On “I’m Writing a Novel,” Tillman documents another hopeful step toward self-actualization, but imbues it with tongue-in-cheek distance, embarking on the titular activity “because it’s never been done before.” These are songs about trying to find onself, realizing how cliché that quest is, and then further realizing that there’s no choice but to push through anyway. It’s a discovery that finds its clearest expression on the gorgeous, elegiac “Now I’m Learning to Love the War,” with its obsessive focus on the components, both physical and emotional, involved in pressing a record. The song ends with a summation of Fear Fun‘s themes, its focus on establishing an identity with the help of music, using it as a tool to process influence and maybe sow it for others. “One day this all will repeat,” he sings, “and I sure hope they make something useful out of me.”