Father John Misty, born as Joshua Tillman, is far from a newcomer to the music world. The former Fleet Foxes drummer has been releasing folk albums since 2004, starting with the super limited release of, I Will Return; followed by 2005’s Long May You Run; 2006’s Europe only release of Minor Works; 2007’s Cancer and Delirium--Tillman’s most successful album to date; 2008’s Vacilando Territory Blues; 2009’s Year in The Kingdom; 2010’s Singing Ax. And finally, the Jonathan Wilson produced, Phil Ek mixed, Fear Fun, released May 2012 on Sub Pop in the US and Bella Union in the UK and Europe. Tillman’s latest release came after a move to what he has called, a “spider-shack” in Laurel Canyon, from Seattle where he lived after dropping out of college in 2004. His sorrowful vocals and acoustic sound has garnered him comparisons to English musician, Nick Drake.
It's pretty amazing how many people don't typically pay close attention to lyrics, even hypothetical people with a degree in English who write about music for mobile apps. Recording under the moniker Father John Misty, J. Tillman is one of those rare artists who crafts lyrics that leap out of the music like illustrations in a pop up book. It's tough not to hang on to his every word, even if you aren't always entirely sure what he means.
Until last March, J. Tillman was Fleet Foxes wise-cracking drummer, lending his sarcastic stage banter, rustic angel vocals, and colossal drumming to those quickest of brown bearded foxes. A solo artist before joining Robin Pecknold's folk-rock powerhouse, J. Tillman decided to leave the band and focus on his own songwriting, writing “back into the gaping maw of obscurity I go” on his Tumblr. That maw may be less gaping by the day however, as Tillman's first album since 2010, and first under the Father John Misty moniker is the best thing he's ever released. Tillman's past releases have been beautiful and expertly crafted folk, but dark, sometimes pitch black, and heartrendingly sparse. The May 1st released Fear Fun sees Tillman lightening up, and pointing his acerbic wit towards rollicking country-rock.
Fear Fun was written after Tillman relocated to Los Angeles from Seattle, and in the tradition of classic films like The Big Lebowski and Chinatown, Hollywood as a legendary space (in a playful, kinda deprecating sort of way) is the setting for the album. Tillman puts on his late 60s Dylan cowboy hat, laying claim to Blonde On Blonde/John Wesley Harding/Nashville Skyline's ambling country and sharp narrative lyrical structure. Tillman nails boisterous whiskey-swilling Americana (“Tee-Pees 1-12,” “I'm Writing A Novel”), but shines brightest on more pensive tracks, often incorporating the rich harmonies and melodies of his former band Fleet Foxes.
Starting more like an Oasis song than a folk or country song, “Hollywood Forever Cemetary Sings” moves with a slow, pulverizing power lead by crunchy guitar and Tillman's vocals stretching from the earth to the sky. On “Nancy From Now On” Tillman sings “oh, pour me … another drink” slathering decadent strings and slide guitar over his wryly despondent vocals. By the time his falsetto vocals flow slick over the tinkling piano your sold, even as Tillman manages to sing “I'll put away a few/and pretty soon I'll be breaking things like Howard Hughes” and only add to the spell.
There's hardly a weak track on Fear Fun, with each effort unfolding with wit, charm, and gorgeously confident melodies. When Tillman sings “If I make it out alive/from Hollywood and Vine,/I'll build a cabin up in the Northwest,” citing the cross street deep in Hollywood, you hope he makes it out alive, but that he just stays put and makes more albums like this one.