Father John Misty Is Letting His Brilliant Songwriting Do The Talking These Days
Have you noticed the silence? I realize the other guy releasing an album 6/1 has been drowning out everybody else anyway, but the contrast is instructive: Whereas Kanye West is doing everything he can to rankle and entrance the masses, his fellow media-savvy cult of personality Josh Tillman hasn’t made a peep. His latest Father John Misty album, God’s Favorite Customer, is about a month away, and the only interview he’s given about it was last fall, well before the rollout kicked off in earnest. His Twitter remains deleted. No publicity stunts as of yet. Nothing but marvelous music.
This occurred to me early Saturday evening while watching Misty play an immaculate one-hour set alongside the Ohio River. He was performing at Homecoming, the National’s new music festival at Smale Park in Downtown Cincinnati. His show was striking for several reasons: lush arrangements brought to life by a well-honed band, sneakily clever lyrics ringing out in bright bursts of melody, Tillman’s tall frame shrouded in a knee-length pea coat to fend off the chill. What struck me most, though, was what the performance omitted: One of the most loquacious men in music opted for hardly any stage banter whatsoever.
Ever since God’s Favorite Customer hit my inbox, I’ve had this working theory that Misty is at his best when, rather than deploying his all-seeing wit and wisdom to skewer humanity at large, he uses it to dissect himself. You can always count on him for some richly conceived ’70s-style studio pop on that Harry Nilsson/Elton John tip, but a little humility and vulnerability go a long way toward ingratiating The Smartest Guy In The Room. This is the factor separating the Father John Misty albums I merely enjoy from the ones I love with all my heart; when he lets us see his own weakness, the stakes just feel higher.
It’s not as if the stakes are low on songs like “Pure Comedy.” If anything, tunes about our desperate human condition are more widely relevant than reflections on some weirdo’s romantic entanglements. Yet special things happen when Tillman lets it all hang out. Although he is an extremely smart, even prophetic songwriter with meaningful things to say about modern society, he unlocks some deeper power within himself when wrestling with his own passions. Thus, the drug-fueled romp Fear Fun and the overstuffed epic Pure Comedy are cool, but the one that gobsmacked me is I Love You, Honeybear, the romantic comedy pitting Tillman’s cynicism against the exhilarating affection he’s beginning to feel.
If you were bowled over by the sound of Tillman selling himself on happily after, you’re going to be devastated by the sound of that happy ending falling apart. You may recall that Misty told Uncut the project we now know as God’s Favorite Customer “was written in a six-week period where I was kind of on the straits,” when “my life blew up,” and that “in short, it’s a heartache album.” If his other records are movies, this one is a one-man play about Tillman holed up in a hotel, coping with what sure sounds like his marriage in jeopardy. The details of his situation remain blurry, but if you’ve heard the early singles, you probably already know this thing will straight-up disembowel you if you listen with your guard down.
My theory that Misty’s songwriting potency increases as it gets more personal may well hold up, but as of this weekend I have a second theory: His songs are better left to speak for themselves. Regarding the events that inspired God’s Favorite Customer, Tillman also told Uncut, “I don’t want to talk about what happened,” and he’s stuck to his word so far. Almost six months have passed since that interview ran, and dude hasn’t uttered another word of exposition. The restraint is shocking considering the deluge of promotion for Pure Comedy last year, when Misty offered up so many willfully outrageous pullquotes and attention-grabbing gimmicks that those of us in the music blogging business began to think of ourselves mainly as Josh Tillman biographers.
His newfound reticence has allowed me to focus on his latest round of songs in a way that wasn’t possible when he was flooding the market with chatter. It’s like someone finally turned off the commentary track and we can hear the music on its own terms. That’s been revelatory while engaging with his as-yet-unreleased album — even more so when revisiting his catalog Saturday in Cincy. In the context of a concert, a lot of the distinctions I discussed above fell by the wayside. What remained was one sterling song after another.
He began with a slow and grandiose “I Love You, Honeybear,” then finger-snapped and whistled his way through “Mr. Tillman.” A smooth “Nancy From Now On” gave way to “Chateau Lobby 4,” a breathtaking showcase for Misty’s brass section. What truly surprised me was how much I enjoyed a three-song run from Pure Comedy, an album that to me felt bogged-down both by length and conceptual weight. At Homecoming, the sequence of “Total Entertainment Forever,” “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution,” and “Ballad Of The Dying Man” were unburdened from that context. Each one seemed less like an overwrought puzzle piece than another well-crafted tune at the Father John Misty gig. The closing movement of “Dying Man” was maybe the most purely gorgeous sequence of music all day.
Tillman did make time for a couple wisecracks, like when he turned his thank-you to the National into an absurd one-liner about the band’s twin brothers: “Nice of the Dessners to finally acknowledge their lost Dessner triplet.” Mostly, though, it was hit after hit. The blunt and salacious “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” boomed across the waterfront. In its live debut, “Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All,” uh, sparkled. (“Like a constant twitching in my eye/ This love of ours will never die.”) The set-closing “The Ideal Husband” ripped as ever, Misty finally cutting loose with the physicality that marks his best performances. The lot of it was thought-provoking, ornate, euphoric. Who needs a treatise when the songs get your point across loud and clear?
Some other notes from Saturday at Homecoming:
•”We drove up from Dayton, Ohio,” Kim Deal said during the Breeders’ late-afternoon set, “because we’re a Dayton, Ohio basement band.” The alt-era veterans looked and sounded the part: casual, scrappy, joking with buddies in the crowd as if playing a small-town dive bar and not in front of thousands on a festival stage. Sibling banter abounded, and a couple local friends guested on songs — all of which was appropriate because Homecoming was something close to a hometown gig for the Breeders too. They even recorded their recent album All Nerve within sight of the festival grounds, just across the river in Dayton, Kentucky. Kelley Deal helpfully pointed it out: “We recorded most of that record riiiiiight… there!”
•Julien Baker’s music is not ideal for outdoor music festivals — it seems best-suited for enclosed spaces full of fans capable of howling every word — but watching her perform her spare, heartrending guitar ballads at sunset, under a full moon, with a bunch of kids looking on from a hillside, was a gift. The only thing missing was a piano catching fire when she reached the climax of “Turn Out The Lights.”
— Chris DeVille (@chrisdeville) April 29, 2018
•Homecoming is a new appendage of MusicNOW, a festival the National’s Bryce Dessner has been organizing in Cincinnati since 2006. MusicNOW’s programming is more on the experimental and/or avant-garde side of things, whereas Homecoming is a bit more mainstream-indie — like a conventional American music festival, but populated almost entirely by bands in the National’s stylistic territory. So Friday’s MusicNOW opening night event, which featured Mouse On Mars in collaboration with a number of acts on the Homecoming lineup, was probably an ideal context for experiencing the German duo’s hyperactive electronic productions. Unfortunately, I didn’t attend that gig, so I was stuck checking out Mouse On Mars in the harsh light of day Saturday afternoon. It was not the most inspiring experience. It was especially disappointing because their new album Dimensional People is startlingly fun — a lot more fun that watching two guys spin abstract dance music to a half-empty field of unenthusiastic Lord Huron fans. Better luck next time, Mouse On Mars!
•The National’s headlining set Saturday was tremendous, but I’m going to wait to share my thoughts on it until after their Boxer-centric performance Sunday night. Look out for a breakdown of both sets Monday.