Josh Tillman was having a surreal moment. A couple weeks ago, he was performing the first of two Thursday night sets celebrating the release of his fifth Father John Misty album, Chloë And The Next 20th Century. Looking out the window of the Rainbow Room — that old Rockefeller Center club towering over Manhattan, now implausibly the site of New York’s Rough Trade shows — he pointed to the glittering lights of the city and asked “…Chrysler Building or Empire State?” He explained he’d gone someplace else during that last song, that he took in his surroundings and a wormhole opened up and the 2012 iteration of Josh Tillman saw him here — hair shorn into a buzz cut, suited up, fronting a band playing old-time-y Hollywood soundtrack balladry about the “ever-present past” while he quipped about shrimp cocktails in between songs — and was aghast. His deadpan kicker: “Then he sent the Terminator after me.”
The current version of Josh Tillman is indeed worlds different than the one we all met in 2012, when he achieved greater notoriety and acclaim upon his debut as Father John Misty. That album, Fear Fun, came out 10 years ago tomorrow. If you go back and read interviews from those days, the idea of different selves was already a crucial part of Father John Misty, was already a rich narrative in Tillman’s life and art. After a childhood in an evangelical household, he dropped out of college and ended up working dead-end jobs in Seattle. At the same time, he began churning out self-serious sad bastard folk music as J. Tillman. That project got him some notice from other musicians. Eventually, he ended up drumming for Fleet Foxes during the heady days of their rapid, surprising ascent in the late ’00s and early ’10s. He’d already lived a few different lives, but something wasn’t quite right. He blew it all up again.
In those early days rechristened as Father John Misty, Tillman relayed his new origin story often. Something snapped, and he had to get the hell out of Seattle. He got in a van armed with a bag full of mushrooms. On a hike in Big Sur, he had a particularly profound trip that ended with him naked in the tree imagining himself as an ape — one of several moments during this psychedelic phase that led him to an acceptance of himself as a different kind of artist. He ended up in LA, accidentally settling in Laurel Canyon when he intended to move to Topanga Canyon. He wrote a novel, and felt like that was his actual artistic voice — funny, honest, more of his true self that had previously only crept through during between song banter at J. Tillman shows. He began writing songs again, and adopted the Father John Misty moniker, he claims, at random. It was a fruitful season of rebirth, and in the spring of 2012 Tillman emerged a new man: Fear Fun, the product of resets and self-realization, with that novel printed in tiny lettering in its liner notes, almost as a gag.
It’s a good story, and a classic American one. Tillman rolled into Los Angeles in search of new beginnings and reinvention. And Fear Fun was that across the board. J. Tillman was long gone. Father John Misty had a sleeker look, a biting and sardonic viewpoint, and songs that, true to the album’s name, were fun. FJM’s debut still had plenty of beautiful sighing folk-rock, but it also had rambling psychedelia and a loose exploratory sensibility. At the time, I had only passing awareness of the J. Tillman albums, and mostly heard this as the unexpectedly addicting solo debut from the former Fleet Foxes drummer. But, otherwise, context still dogged Tillman.
Tillman had created a new artistic identity for himself, which naturally led everyone to think this was some sort of bit: “Introspective Pacific Northwest songwriter reborn as hedonistic LA shaman rocker” is such an effective story that people indeed thought it was a story. Questions of who the real Tillman and who the real Father John Misty were abound, as if it all couldn’t be a chaotic coexistence fueling Tillman’s newly vibrant music. He spent a good deal of that press rollout, and a not insignificant amount of time since, explaining that all of this was more authentically him than any of the put-on gravity of J. Tillman. Along the way, there would be so much meta-commentary on performance and pop culture, and eventually so many press hijinks, that it would continue to be tempting to understand Father John Misty as an ego-tripping prankster cooked up by Tillman. But on Fear Fun and all its successors, the music always held up no matter how much you were amused or exhausted by all the other trappings of FJM.
All these years later, Fear Fun still has a handful of the FJM all-timers. It opens with “Funtimes In Babylon,” partially his self-aware reckoning with his fresh start in SoCal, wearily promising, “Look out Hollywood, here I come”; the title still serves as a theme for a lot of FJM music, mulling over entertainment and distraction and self-destruction under either the numbness of late capitalism or a fracturing contemporary society. “Nancy From Now On” was a shock back then — who knew this guy could write a cooing, infectious little pop song like this? The melodies proved unshakeable throughout, whether in the rollicking “I’m Writing A Novel” or “Tee Pees 1-12,” the dramatic conclusions of “Only Son Of A Ladies’ Man” and “This Is Sally Hatchet,” or the sweet guitar lines and harmonies of “Misty’s Nightmare 1 & 2.” And of course, Fear Fun gave us “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” something of an outlier in the great FJM scheme of things in that he’s rarely written another unabashed rocker.
On paper, almost none of this should’ve worked. It’s a short, short list of drummers for bands who strike out and make great solo music that could eventually eclipse their old gig. Tillman’s transformation from J. to Father John could’ve failed miserably. But even without knowing the man’s full backstory in 2012, I could hear Tillman’s new discovery on Fear Fun. The whole thing is animated, free-wheeling — exhilarated even in its calmer moments. Tillman probably understood this all had a good narrative hook, but on the same level he also knew how ridiculous this all sounded; when he announced his departure from Fleet Foxes, he said he was headed back to the “maw of obscurity.” He knew, historically speaking, his chances weren’t great here. And yet, if you revisit any interviews from 2012, you also see a man with a new sense of self and purpose. It was always murky, and sometimes made more opaque by him, but FJM was Tillman being honest, being himself.
That began with Fear Fun, which means yes, you get a bit of Tillman’s freewheeling hallucinogenic days, and you get a bit of Tillman playing with the fragments of California: the old “go west” iconography mixed with the banalities of a contemporary Laurel Canyon now populated by high-power agents really into wellness culture. But in one of the album’s most direct moments, in its closer “Every Man Needs A Companion,” you get the real meaning of it all:
Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones
Couldn’t give me a myth
So I had to write my own
Like I’m hung up on religion
Though I know it’s a waste
I never liked the name Joshua
I got tired of J
To get to this point, Tillman had shed a lot of the past. He’d do that again. Even within Father John Misty, his identity seemed to constantly modulate: The cynic still anxious but fully embracing romantic institutions on I Love You, Honeybear, the LSD-addled town crier during the Pure Comedy era, the sobered crash landing reflections of God’s Favorite Customer. And then it was on to one of his biggest surprises with Chloë And The Next 20th Century, reemerging after four years and press blackouts with an album featuring his most severe musical departures yet.
Over the last 10 years, Tillman has one-upped himself again and again. Fear Fun is now the charming, scrappy opening chapter. He’s bettered himself in almost every way since then, with his songwriting and self-reflexive commentary both growing more nuanced through the decade. But, there’s still that electricity, that freedom, running through Fear Fun when you go back to it all this time later. You can still hear the energy of a man really discovering who he is. It’s been a hell of a ride with Tillman since. Here’s to another 10 years of strange encounters, misadventures, hilarity and poignance in the face of looming catastrophe, love in times of despair, and transformations nobody can see coming.