Father John Misty – the absurd stage name under which folk rocker Josh Tillman has operated for the past decade – is set to return on Friday with “Chloë and the Next 20th Century”. It is Tillman’s first album since 2018 and fifth overall under the “FJM” name.
Before assuming the moniker Misty, Tillman spun his wheels in relative obscurity as “J. Tillman,” releasing eight albums of serious folk music between 2003 and 2010. His next incarnation was as a drummer from the critically revered indie band Fleet Foxes.
Then a psychedelic trip knocked the scales off his eyes, and he saw a way out of the desert: just be yourself – the funny, sardonic, self-absorbed showman who took a few drugs, met a few women, and hung out contemplate this fallen world. Enter “Father John Misty”, the mask that revealed the man.
Tillman then began writing songs that explicitly reflected his personality and worldview. An ex-evangelical who endured trauma growing up in the church, Tillman renounced the Christian faith as an adult and then embraced the highlights and misadventures offered by a lifetime of worldly experience.
His first FJM record, “Fear Fun”, is an ironic document of his rebellion, applying a faith-based “leader of sinners” approach mostly for laughs. He received widespread acclaim and landed Tillman guest appearances on David Letterman (see below) and Conan O’Brien.
With its even more acclaimed follow-up, “I Love You, Honeybear,” Tillman fashioned his best approximation of a marriage record while keeping one foot planted in the confessional. Here was love in the shadow of the Fall.
Next comes “Pure Comedy,” an ambitious commentary on the madness of human existence, past and present, that sometimes veers into heaviness. From there, Tillman returned to his strengths as a songwriter with the very personal “God’s Favorite Client”, which found him mired in crisis and desperate for deliverance.
Somehow, the combination of “Pure Comedy” and “God’s Favorite Customer” painted Tillman as a kind of Ivan Karamazov character. For a moment, he confidently exposes the nature of reality. Later, he collapsed into a feverish heap, overwhelmed by everything he couldn’t control or understand. He’s only human, after all.
The final chapter of the FJM odyssey is now here. Prior to “Chloë and the Next 20th Century,” Tillman released three singles. “Funny Girl” is pure 50s crooner while the ornate “Q4” and autumnal “Goodbye Mr. Blue” both signal Harry Nilsson influence. The latter is basically a tribute to “Everybody’s Talkin'”.
Ahead of “Chloë” arriving this week, check out the ten FJM tracks below, all collected from her previous albums. They show the whole man: the sinner, the lover, the seeker, the cynic and the sympathetic soul who “just wants a little light in the dark, a little warmth in the cold”, and perhaps even an encounter with the living God.
‘Funtimes in Babylon’
“Funtimes in Babylon” is a showcase (albeit understated) for much of what makes Father John Misty such a compelling performer. There’s the expressive voice, the distorted confessional style, the recurring biblical imagery and the sly sense of humor. His deadpan rendition of “Look out, Hollywood, here I am” offers a taste of the tongue-in-cheek sensibility that permeates “Fear Fun.”
‘Nancy from now on’
“Oh, pour me another drink and punch me in the face, you can call me Nancy,” runs the must-have opening line to “Nancy from Now On.” Here is Tillman as a man beset by sin and dysfunction, a captive trying to flee his own personal Egypt. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the song’s radiant, immaculate production, which makes the whole ordeal so inviting. These feathery falsetto hooks are irresistible.
‘Only son of the ladies’ man’
The song itself is superb. It’s FJM in auto-mythology mode, with an obvious nod to Leonard Cohen. But this performance on Letterman takes it to another level. Strutting, posing and having fun, the six-foot-two Tillman revels in the spotlight while using his muscular voice to transcend the theater. When he sings, “Someone’s gotta comfort these lonely girls,” the antics take a back seat, if only briefly, to heart and conviction.
“When You Smile and Ride Me”
“When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” is a gorgeous mural ballad addressed to Tillman’s wife that oozes wistful emotion, mostly in the form of cascading wordless voices (think “The Dark Side of the Moon”) . But since it’s an FJM love song, there’s fear and self-reprobation right alongside the exultation. “I can’t believe I found you and it terrifies me,” Tillman confesses. Terror – especially the fundamental terror of alienation from God – is still present in his world.
“I went to the store one day”
Quiet and affectionate, “Went to the Store One Day” might rank as the finest moment in FJM’s catalog. Once again, it’s about his beloved, revealing the prosaic details of their encounter and previewing what the future might hold. As for the present: “But now, in just one year, I’ve become jealous, skinny, prone to paranoia when I’m stoned.” When human love is confused with salvation, it can take life as easily as give it.
“Total Entertainment Forever”
“Total Entertainment Forever” fires on all cylinders. Lyrically, it steals ideas from “Infinite Jest” about media overconsumption to confuse the modern understanding of progress. With heavy use of irony, Tillman suggests that “the freedom to have what you want” isn’t all it’s made out to be.
Musically, it’s like a vintage Elton John extravaganza, loaded with piano, brass and pop flair. There is one hook after another. You don’t want the party to end.
“And as the world gets smaller, the little things take up all your time
Narcissus would have had a field day if he could log on
And friends, it’s not self-esteem that kills you
That’s when those who hate you are allowed
To sell you that you’re glorious shit
The whole world revolves around
And that you are the eater, no, not the eaten
But your hunger won’t stop
If you come to gorge yourself on radiant blandness
At the disposable feast »
‘Hangout at the gallows’
After spending too much of “Pure Comedy” lecturing on society’s ills and life’s big questions, FJM started to lose their minds over “God’s Favorite Customer” again. The opening, “Hangout at the Gallows”, is the sound of someone staring into the abyss for too long. Violent metaphors spring from him: floods, capsizing boats, “psychic terrorists in the upper room” and sharp knives (not to mention the title). When Tillman asks, “What’s your politics/what’s your religion?” he seems ready to do anything to save himself.
On “Mr. Tillman,” FJM borrows a page from the “Fear Fun” playbook by injecting humor and hooks into another tale of his own unsavory behavior. The crime scene is New York’s Lafayette House , a hotel where Tillman camped for several months in self-imposed exile. After a clerk politely recounts his various misdeeds, Tillman replies, “I feel fine, d-mn, I feel so fine… Don’t worry, it’s just my vibe.”
We’re meant to laugh, and the daydreaming of the song only adds to the fun. But make no mistake, the cry for help is real.
“God’s Favorite Customer”
Behold FJM’s masterpiece, a beautifully crafted ballad of brokenness and spiritual desolation that feels like it was his life’s call to write. Everything works perfectly, whether it’s the downcast style of ’70s singer-songwriters, the self-loathing humor (“I’m in the business of living / Yeah, that’s something I’d say” ), the celestial choirs or the anguished prayer at the heart of the song.
“Speak to me / Won’t you speak, sweet angel,” Tillman pleads psalmically to the God he rejected long ago. We wonder if he heard anything in response.
Barry Lenser lives and works in the Upper Midwest. He loves the Lord, his family and the Packers.