Fear Fun is the eighth studio album from Josh Tillman but the first under his new moniker of Father John Misty. When Tillman unexpectedly departed his hugely successful stint as drummer in Fleet Foxes in early 2012 it sent ripples through the fan base that became so intense that the bands frontman and songwriter Robin Pecknold had to take to Twitter to assure fans that the band was not about to split up as a consequence of his departure. Not a bad reaction for someone who was “Just the drummer” in the band. Of course Tillman had been a singer/songwriter in his own right before joining the Foxes, just as their debut album was about to be released in 2008, and when he announced his departure it was only a matter of time until further material was bound to emerge. What is startling is the circumstances surrounding this albums conception and what a staggering transformation Tillman has been through in recording this album.
Having decided to leave his hugely successful day job during a bout of depression, he cut his hair and headed off on a road trip to California, armed only with a huge amount of magic mushrooms and the intention of writing a novel, settling in the West Hollywood area of Lauryl Canyon. Tillman’s previous albums had been stark, lonesome folk music, with Tillman’s hushed, quivering voice barely registering above a whisper and were, by all accounts, extremely difficult to penetrate and connect with. Even Tillman himself has admitted that his previous work had not been up to scratch and after throwing himself into the hedonistic, drug fuelled world he found himself in, the intended novel ended up giving way to hugely creative songwriting sessions resulting in a batch of songs that are positively light years away from anything he has done before.
Adopting the new alias of Father John Misty has allowed Tillman to truly flourish as a songwriter, singer and performer. Free of the shackles of his past efforts and with a new invigorated focus, Tillman draws from all the best aspects of traditional American music; Appalachian Folk, Country, Blues, and Rock n Roll, and he delivers it with his witty, sardonic humour, deeply confessional lyrics and all wrapped up in a laid back, West-Coast California vibe that harks back to it’s golden era of the early 70s and truly captures the spirit in which these songs were recorded. Tillmans voice is bolder and brighter on this record and shares the same soaring quality as his former band leader Robin Pecknold and it is instantly apparent how important his vocals were to the trademark Fleet Foxes harmonies. It beggars belief that it has taken until now before Tillman has truly let fly with his voice on his own material and show its true range.
There are nods to his former band scattered throughout this album. Their influence can be heard from the word go with album opener ‘Fun Times In Babylon’, as Tillman’s voice takes flight over heavenly harmonies and a musical arrangement that wouldn’t be out of place on a Rufus Wainwright album. Tillman’s sense of escapism is captured as he looks to get out “Before they put me to work in a Government camp, before they do my face up like a corpse and say get up and dance” It’s hopeful sentiment signed off with a “Look out Hollywood, here I come” as subtle piano, acoustic guitar, mandolin, strings and Tillman’s trademark rhythmic stomp all intertwine to set the album off to a beautiful start.
“Oh pour me another drink, and punch me in the face, you can call me Nancy” cries Misty as the listeners are plunged headlong into his bizarre, hedonistic headspace during ‘Nancy From Now On’. Even though he is singing of his organs being housed in concentration camps and screaming “slow down man”, it is impossible not to be completely swept away by its mid-period Eagles melody, filled with sun-kisssed Californian soul and classic songwriting sensibility.
The excesses are laid bare even further as the country boogie of ‘I’m Writing A Novel’ begins with Misty’s recollections of “Running down the road, pants down to my knees screaming ”Please come help me, that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!” before continuing with tales of burning his only clothes in the backyard, riding to Malibu on a dune buggy with a bloke called Neil and observing the superficial Hollywood culture through a haze of drugs and alcohol.
5 songs in and Misty’s pangs of regret suddenly come to the fore with ‘O I Long To Feel Your Arms Around Me’. It is the albums first real declaration of loneliness and the song itself could quite easily have been on any of the Fleet Foxes releases that came before it with its reverb drenched harmonies and heartfelt emotive delivery. The same could also be said for ‘The Only Son Of A Ladies Man’. Tillman’s calling card of atmospheric rolling drums power the soaring melody and uplifting vocals over the story of the death of ‘The Ladiesman’ who had become something of a hero to Misty as he casts his eye over all his past conquests in attendance at his funeral.
‘This Is Sally Hatchet’ gloomily rolls in and gradually builds up with dark orchestration reminiscent of late-period Beatles while ‘Well You Can Do It Without Me’ successfully manages to wrap a simple country song around the whistling solo of Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay. ‘Tee Pees 1-2′ continues with Misty’s bizarre, yet engaging storytelling over a jaunty bluegrass hoedown. All the while the character of this new alter-ego of Tillman’s is shining through, constantly grabbing the listeners attention both lyrically and in his heart and soul delivery.
‘Now I’m Learning To Love The War’ Tillman reflects on the environmental impact that selling physical music has, right down to the tiniest detail of “The shipping, the vinyl, the cellophane lining, the high gloss, the tape and the gear”, but the fact that it is performed over a musical arrangement that Burt Bacharach would be proud of, makes it work.
The album closes with the sublime ‘Every Man Needs A Companion’ that effortlessly guides the album to its conclusion, with its self-reflecting sentiment of his entire journey up to this point, making up his own myth, escaping his environment and becoming the artist he truly wanted to be.
Under his new alias Tillman appears to be revelling in the freedom that this persona allows him to have as a performer. Always a very humourous and natural communicator with Fleet Foxes audiences and friends alike, he has finally been able to harness his wit and wisdom into song in a similar way to that of his fellow label mate John Grant and his debut album The Queen Of Denmark. However, whether it is wearing a Saturday Night Fever suit and busting out disco moves performing ‘Nancy From Now On’ on talk shows, or throwing himself around the stage during the intense build up of ‘Sally Hatchet’, you never feel like it is contrived and it is obvious that Tillman still feels every word and emotion with these autobiographical songs.
His website is also an absolute gem of sardonic and self-depricating humour too. Full of photos of Tillman in various ‘interesting’ poses and literal menu titles such as ‘Please Buy My T-Shirts” and ‘I Am Coming To Your Town So You Can Film Me On Your Iphone’ instead of the more traditional ‘Store’ and ‘Live Dates’ sections. There is even a justification with each one such as “THERE’S QUITE A BIT OF OVERHEAD INVOLVED IN TOURING. GAS, HOTELS, PURE CUT COCAINE, PITA, HUMMUS, CARROT STICKS, CHERRY TOMATOES, ETC. AS YOU CAN IMAGINE, IT ALL ADDS UP! SO HOW DO I GET YOU TO PART WITH YOUR HARD EARNED DOLLARS, WHEN MUSIC IS FREE ON YOUTUBE?”.
Fear Fun is worthy of investigation by anyone who has even a passing interest in traditional American music and the Great American Songbook. It is a fantastic document that captures Josh Tillman at specific moment in time and at a pivotal point in his career. For years Tillman feared having fun with his music, now that he has embraced it, it has seen his stock rise considerably over the last year, within hipster circles as well as traditional music fans alike. It seems everybody wants to join the cult of Father John Misty.