Father John Misty's Fear Fun may be one of the year's best albums
Fear Fun (Sub Pop)
We have immobilizing depression and a crippling case of writer’s block to thank for Fear Fun, which might prove to be one of the best records of the year. Those stumbling blocks are what drove Josh Tillman to decamp from his Seattle digs and wander down the West Coast in a van packed with magic mushrooms. He wound up in Laurel Canyon, which seems like an apt place for a folk-rock singer-songwriter. But the former Fleet Foxes drummer, who had already released seven solo albums under the name J. Tillman, had actually lost interest in making music and was instead writing a novel. Through that exercise, Tillman serendipitously found a new songwriting voice.
This new voice evidently required a new moniker, hence J. Tillman became Father John Misty. The name change is apt, given that Fear Fun sounds little like the guy-and-his-guitar moping of Tillman’s previous records. This is an album that sounds as if it couldn’t have been made anywhere but Los Angeles, filled as it is with sharply drawn, if weirdly askew (must be the ’shrooms), observations of the shimmering illusions and wretched excesses of Tinseltown and its denizens. The transplanted Washingtonian approaches it all with his eyes wide open. “Oh/How was I to know/That milk and honey flowed/Just a couple states below,” he sings on “Nancy From Now On”.
Behind that wide-eyed wonder, however, lie some less-than-innocent urges. On the tone-setting opening track, the ironically hymnlike “Funtimes in Babylon”, Tillman announces “I would like to abuse my lungs/Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved/And ride around the wreckage on a horse knee deep in blood/Lookout Hollywood, here I come.”
The imagery seems a little incongruous when delivered in Tillman’s clear, effortlessly melodic voice (although he knows how to push said voice until it cracks just right), but it’s par for the course on a record that also features a song whose protagonist crashes funerals so he can bone his girlfriend in a graveyard (“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”).
The man might be a grade-A freak, but his new music is surprisingly accessible, if decidedly retro-leaning. The touchstones, not surprisingly, are all very California. The rollicking country-rock of “I’m Writing a Novel” and “Tee Pees 1-12” could almost be Flying Burrito Brothers B-sides if the lyrics weren’t so delightfully vulgar. And I could point out where other songs kind of sound a bit like other bands from 30 or 40 years ago—like the Byrds or maybe even the Eagles—but Father John Misty doesn’t really sound like any of them. Maybe there’s just something in the water there in Laurel Canyon that makes things come out this way. Or, more likely, something in the mushrooms.