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Artist Spotlight: Father John Misty

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In 1975 David Bowie challenged that rock n’ roll was dead, a “toothless old woman”. New Musical Express writer, Anthony O’Grady, asked Bowie if he really believed that– and if so, what was next? David was sure his phone was being tapped, but he replied, “Dictatorship.”

Bowie prophesied an “extreme right” government led by an apocalyptic figure who would open up a rift unlike any since the birth of rock n’ roll. The tear would be necessary for the masses to revolutionize or (as in the case of rock n’ roll) accept the new world order. And of course, it would all be televised. “It doesn’t matter who puts what in the TV… The TV puts over its own plan.” Was that paranoid soothsayer really Bowie or was it The Thin White Duke? Or Diamond Dog? Was it the Man Who Fell To Earth? Did it matter? Earth misses David Bowie.

Enter Father John Misty.

He was born Josh Tillman in a Maryland suburb of Washington D.C. where his parents encouraged spiritual growth over cultural awareness. Josh played drums, then guitar. He considered becoming a minister, then decided to move to Seattle and play music. He could do both though, couldn’t he? Preach rock n’ roll like his boyhood hero, Bob Dylan? Dylan traded in his persona for religion every few years, didn’t he? Josh developed the singer/songwriter aspect of his character in the early 21st century. He stepped in and out of indie bands before returning to the drums with Fleet Foxes in 2008. He saw America. He toured the world. All the angst of his childhood seasoned the Baptist/Pentecostal/Jewish stew simmering in his soul. Josh Tillman was done playing music. It was time to testify.

Father John debuted in May 2012 (5 years ago, what a surprise). His albums have been well received despite a few polarizing jaunts into pop. Father John insists he never listened to Taylor Swift though he recorded two of her songs. He’s also worked with Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Like Bob Dylan at his blonde best, Father John’s new concept album, Pure Comedy, is the alpha and omega of a cultural joke. Plot: a species with half-formed brains invents meaning where there is none while becoming dependent on irony. Oh, and they taste good too. This species trades reality for fantasy and is desiccated by its own imagination—what Ziggy Stardust might have called a rock n’ roll suicide.

Consider the album’s latest single, “Ballad of the Dying Man”— the subject looks back, not at his life, but at the judgements and assertions he’s made. His social expression is more important than love, family, relationships—his only regret is that he won’t be able to continue his ongoing commentary. The production is spot on— evocative of Yellow Brick Road era Elton John, vulnerable but vicious. It’s also frighteningly poignant. Pure Comedy lilts until it thinks you aren’t paying attention, then it grows dissonant and spiteful. If you can’t hear the joke, see the video for “Total Entertainment Forever.” (Spoiler: that kid from the Xmas movie who slapped his cheeks with aftershave and outwitted Joe Pesci plays a crucified Kurt Cobain— now that’s timing.) Perhaps the 2017 release of Pure Comedy coincides with Bowie’s dystopia (what if that’s why he left?) Certainly, it takes a “character” with absolute resolve, an anti-hero equipped with 20 million Twitter followers, a super serum’s dose of irony, and six million dollars’ worth of eyes to view who we are, what we’ve become, and where we will manifest…right?

Father John Misty abhors the entertainment industry. He’ll tell you it’s stupid to your face or on Instagram. He heralded Pure Comedy with digital essays and Soundcloud singles—he is not without sin, so you can trust him. Father John is an evangelist— he entertains, but is not an entertainer. Josh Tillman is the dancing chicken, but the stove gets too hot. Josh sees the weight of it all straining against the twine. He’s profane, genuinely scared, and maybe a little embarrassed that he likes Taylor Swift. Not Father John, though. Nope. Rock n’ roll is not dead, but the Seals of Revelation are open. Father John Misty looks out at the Satanic circus, focuses on the demonic clown in charge, and dares it to push the button. Bring on the apocalypse, and say hallelujah.

From somewhere in space, Bowie laughs.

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1 Comment

  1. AJ
    May 16, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    “Encouraged spiritual growth over cultural awareness” is not at all an accurate description of FJM’s parents’ religion/church while he was growing up.