Who is Father John Misty? You could ask five different listeners—or queue up any of the five studio albums he’s released under the moniker—and come away with five different answers. (TikTok’s answer, for the record, is “Hozier’s Wario.”) Long before any such figure existed, there was just Joshua Tillman, the youngest child of four growing up in Rockville, Maryland, in an Evangelical Christian household from which most secular pop music was banned—naturally, he developed an interest in secular pop music. Eventually, there would be the Seattle-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who released eight solo albums of “sad bastard music” as J. Tillman, and the Fleet Foxes drummer of the band’s breakout Helplessness Blues era. But it wasn’t until 2011, when Tillman relocated to Los Angeles, signed to Sub Pop and began recording a new album—leaving both his former band and the J. Tillman name he was born with behind him—that Father John Misty entered the picture.
That album, 2012’s Fear Fun, served as a springboard for the next decade of Tillman’s music career, in which he would become, if not Stranger Things Season 2 famous, then at least Saturday Night Live famous. (When Paste briefly returned to print in 2017, he was an easy pick for our first cover star.) One of his generation’s most acclaimed artists, Tillman has tap-danced on the line between truth and exaggeration as Father John Misty, with songwriting that revels in absurd tall tales and biting social commentary, self-made myth and existential truth, literary narrative and intimate exposé, exhaustive screed and pithy quip. These elements have ebbed and flowed across five albums, whose instrumentation has dabbled in just about every possible secular pop music sound—on his latest, Chloë and The Next 20th Century, Father John Misty “goes for baroque,” as Paste contributor Eric Bennett put it, making his boldest sonic departure yet.
It’s the occasion of that album’s April 8 release that has us looking back on Father John Misty’s body of work, weighing, measuring and, above all, celebrating each individual chapter of his decade-long existence as Tillman’s avatar. Here’s to the next decade.
Father John Misty’s fourth album, God’s Favorite Customer was released just one year after his third, the shortest gap between LPs in his career, and in the context of his complete discography, it feels more like a Pure Comedy palate cleanser than anything else. That’s not to say it’s anything less than an excellent record—these are some of the most accessible, immediately hooky songs Tillman has ever written, especially singles “Mr. Tillman,” “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All” and “Just Dumb Enough to Try.” That first track, written from the perspective of the poor hotel clerk tasked with wrangling its eponymous problem guest, clues us into the circumstances of the record’s writing—“I was living in a hotel for two months,” Tillman has explained—while the latter two tell us why, all but explicitly addressing the dissolution of his marriage (“My life blew up [...] It’s a heartache album”). His most concise statement at just 10 tracks and 38 minutes, God’s Favorite Customer is Father John Misty’s least essential effort simply because it’s too pained to see past its own romantic post-mortem—its frank emotional devastation necessitates an understandable solipsism that Tillman only occasionally transcends. (You could argue this critique is pre-empted by the album’s title—as always, no one is better at knocking Father John Misty than the man himself.)
After delivering a combined existential TED Talk and stand-up set on Pure Comedy, God’s Favorite Customer-era Tillman’s mordant wit remains intact, but he just doesn’t have the answers anymore—”People, we know so little about ourselves,” he surrenders on the album’s closing cut—and all the musical ability in the world amounts to less than nothing in the face of all that confusion and sorrow (“I know my way ‘round a tune / Won’t be a single dry eye in a room / But you can take what I know about you / And maybe fill a small balloon,” he sings on “Just Dumb Enough to Try”). Tillman makes no attempt to obscure how rudderless and dwarfed by doom he feels—in fact, he leads with it, questioning on bleak opener “Hangout at the Gallows,” “What’s your politics? / What’s your religion? / What’s your intake? / Your reason for living?” as if imploring you to hand him one. On the same song, he conjures the image of a knife fight on a sinking ship, lamenting, “I’m treading water as I bleed to death”—it’s that all-encompassing despair, though rendered through timeless, polished-to-gleaming pop, that makes God’s Favorite Customer Father John Misty’s closest thing to a minor release. Credit the man for making the songwriting equivalent of a deathbed conversion so damn listenable.
A common refrain of early critical reactions to Chloë and The Next 20th Century, including Paste’s own, is that it represents the death (or at least de-emphasis) of Father John Misty as a character. It’s a sensible interpretation: You can argue whether the distinction between Tillman and Misty is of much import at all—paraphrasing Philip Roth upon initially introducing his moniker, Tillman said, “It’s all of me and none of me, if you can’t see that, you won’t get it”—but there’s no arguing that on this, more than any of his other albums, Tillman disappears most completely into the music. Instead, Father John Misty’s spotlight shines on Chloë, the “borough socialist”; fraudulent memoirist Simone Caldwell; the unnamed “Funny Girl” who “charmed the pants off Letterman”; an ex-con Detroiter struggling to reconnect with his estranged daughter; two sweethearts “bleeding on the freeway” after a crash; the isolated world-traveler of “Olvidado (Otro Momento)”; a cat named Mr. Blue. Tillman’s heartache continues to echo even through these seemingly disparate fictions, which are filled with broken relationships, star-crossed love and irrevocable losses—many of their characters don’t survive the album. Why should Father John Misty?
As our review also observes, Chloë is Father John Misty like you’ve never heard him before, his fragmented vignettes backed by grand string arrangements, Old Hollywood swing, baroque pop and candle-lit bossa nova—but flickers of the artist we knew do shine through. Take “Q4”’s cautionary tale about the commodification of entertainment, a successor to Fear Fun’s “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” and Pure Comedy’s “The Memo,” or the ruefully folky Harry Nilsson worship of “Goodbye Mr. Blue.” The one-two punch of “Kiss Me (I Loved You)” and ”(Everything But) Her Love” would not have sounded all that out of place on Pure Comedy, at least instrumentally, while on “Only a Fool,” he considers the history of heartbreak at a scale that also evokes that album, declaring, “The wisdom of the ages / From the Gita to Abraham / Was written by smitten, lonely sages / Too wise to ever take a chance.” But this Father John Misty is changed, drawn in by the entertainment he once wrote off: His narrator yearns for the “five-foot Cleopatra” of “Funny Girl” to “flash that manic smile in my direction,” a far cry from the songwriter who once delivered, “In the new age we’ll all be entertained,” as a dire warning. Father John Misty’s music is at its most transportive and evocative on this latest record, but as a lyricist, he’s either wandering or lost. And though thrilling closer “The Next 20th Century” uplifts “the love songs / and the great distance that they came” as a torch of hope we can carry into the future, Chloë’s prevailing sentiment is one of surrender: “Olvídalo / El destino decide,” or “Forget it / Destiny decides.”
The story goes that Tillman conceived of Father John Misty after traversing the West Coast in a van with “enough mushrooms to choke a horse,” resetting his perspective via psychedelics, entering what he would later call “cosmic joke territory” and finding the voice he would unforgettably introduce on his “debut” album Fear Fun. The record itself has the same hedonistic, voraciously seeking quality as its origin story: “I would like to abuse my lungs / Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved / Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in blood / Look out, Hollywood, here I come,” Father John Misty sings on opener “Funtimes in Babylon,” looking ahead to all the pains and pleasures of the legend to come. He celebrates his Babylon—Los Angeles—on tracks like “Nancy From Now On” and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” inviting, “Oh, pour me another drink / And punch me in the face” to open the former, then having sex in a cemetery in the latter (“You came, I think?”). He spends much of the album chasing both women and a buzz, as best summed up by the “I’m Writing a Novel” couplet, “We could do ayahuasca / Baby, if I wasn’t holding all these drinks.” A torrid love affair and ayahuasca trip make up “Tee Pees 1-12,” while on “Only Son of the Ladiesman,” he casts himself as the heir to a fallen Leonard Cohen character, insisting, “Someone must console these lonesome daughters / No written word or ballad will appease them.” But no matter how you may roll your eyes at his self-mythologizing, there’s something undeniably exhilarating about his joie de vivre.
These days, origin stories have become a pop-cultural stock-in-trade past the point of saturation, but there remains something so satisfying, even now, about a new voice announcing itself in fearless, fully realized fashion. That’s precisely what Father John Misty accomplishes with Fear Fun, setting his gonzo storytelling to lustrous folk-pop (“Funtimes,” “Ladiesman”) and hook-heavy indie rock (“Hollywood Forever”), barroom alt-country (“I’m Writing a Novel”) and twangy Americana (“Well, You Can Do It Without Me”), organ-driven balladry (“O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me”) and fiddle-forward hoedown (“Tee Pees”), all knit into a sonic tapestry that feels fresh and gently psychedelic, yet in keeping with a long lineage of towering singer/songwriters. Rife with L.A. reference points, from Laurel Canyon to Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, the album is both distinctly of its place and always on the move, from subject to subject and style to style. But Father John Misty is ever-present at the center of it all, and on closer “Everyman Needs a Companion,” Tillman takes a moment to explain: “Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones / Couldn’t give me a myth / So I had to write my own.” Ultimately, Fear Fun is about that act of creation—about rebirth, rather than the death that would loom over so much of Father John Misty’s subsequent albums. It’s a celebration of possibility that wrings all it can out of each idea and instrument, laying the foundation for another of the artist’s best …
If there’s one Father John Misty record that’s a surefire crowd-pleaser, it’s I Love You, Honeybear, one of 2015’s most acclaimed albums in any genre. From its title and artwork to all 11 of its tracks, the concept LP has love on the brain—over the moon for his wife, Emma, an uncharacteristically earnest Tillman writes about “learning how to love and be loved; see and be seen,” and finds “true liberation and sublime, unfettered creativity” in the process, as he explains in press materials. The entire album is colored by that all-encompassing passion: If Fear Fun was the arrival of a hallucinogen-gobbling pleasure-seeker, then Honeybear is that maniac falling so hard, he has to re-evaluate his entire life, from his understanding of love itself to his views on, well, everything. This Father John Misty vibrates with inspiration, shouting “yes” to mariachi horns on “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” Postal Service-esque synths and drum machines on “True Affection,” clarinet on “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” lap steel and congas on “Strange Encounter,” and string arrangements throughout. Like Fear Fun before it, Honeybear coheres into a consistently lovely blend of these elements, and does so even more memorably—its songwriting is Father John Misty at both his sweetest and snarkiest, yet somehow, neither feels out of place alongside the other.
On “Chateau Lobby #4,” Tillman celebrates love’s most intoxicating stage: its beginnings. He serenades Emma by name and recalls their first night (and morning) together, singing, “You left a note in your perfect script: / ‘Stay as long as you want,’ and I haven’t left your bed since” (a photo of this very note is included in the liner notes). Yet he still manages to frame falling head over heels in terms both caustic and comic: “I haven’t hated / All the same things as somebody else / Since I remember / What’s going on for, uh, what are you doing with your whole life? / How about forever?” On “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” and “Nothing Good,” he explores love’s uglier auxiliary emotions, ruthlessly mocking a would-be partner (“And now every insufferable convo / Features her patiently explaining the cosmos / Of which she’s in the middle”) who doesn’t measure up to his honeybear in the former, and scathingly staking out his romantic territory on the latter—an act of possessive objectification Tillman himself would later denounce. It’s hard to begrudge him such force of feeling, since it’s the exact source of the album’s many thrills. And again, Father John Misty criticizes himself before we even have the chance to, dressing himself down on sarcastic confessional “The Ideal Husband.”
Honeybear’s last few tracks find him moving into pre-Pure Comedy mode, as if, having satisfied his search for affection beyond all doubt, he’s moving on to the next level of his hierarchy of needs: wide-scope critique of society itself, the framework in which his precious connection exists. But rather than getting ahead of himself, Father John Misty ends the album on his most heartfelt song, “I Went to the Store One Day,” in which a lifetime of love unfurls before him. Knowing how troubled that relationship would later become only makes the song—and Honeybear—all the more beautiful.
There’s no getting around it: Pure Comedy is Father John Misty’s magnum opus, the high-water mark by which all his other albums must be judged. Bent, but not yet broken by his heartache, and coming off his breakout album, Tillman pours a lifetime of wit, wisdom, cynicism and sadness into a record that attempts to diagnose nothing less than existence itself, taking stock of the civilization we’ve built and coming to a deeply damning conclusion: “This is how we want it,” as Tillman insists in an essay that accompanies Pure Comedy. If the human condition is nothing but “a cruel joke,” he argues, we can at least laugh at it while we still draw breath, but what we can’t do is deny who’s telling it—we are—or how it ends. Like Honeybear’s “Holy Shit” in album form, the record is an overwhelming, tragicomic catalog of civilization’s absurdity, with fleeting moments of genuine connection as our only hope of transcending it all. It’s hard to blame any listener who balks at such a heavy lift—this is not only Father John Misty’s longest album, easily, at 74 minutes, but also his most uncompromising, its somber, slow-moving instrumentals blurring into each other as he “wage[s] the old crusade / against consciousness” across 13 songs that feel like they were scrawled on the walls of a room with newspaper taped over all its windows. Tillman, as ever, sees such critiques coming a mile off: “Some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe / Plays as they all jump ship, ‘I used to like this guy / This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die,’” he prophesies on 13-minute centerpiece “Leaving L.A.” Pure Comedy will make you want to either die, or go live. There’s not much in-between.
But here is the thing: Pure Comedy is a towering achievement, and the more you listen to it, the clearer that becomes. The album is not only absolutely loaded with Big Ideas, but it’s also hookier than a fleet of fishing boats. Tillman’s tightly wound vocal melodies never go slack, despite the reams upon reams of lyrics he has to churn through, and his meticulously arranged, piano-forward, string-swept arrangements unerringly serve these songs, where even a slightly less steady hand could have turned this album into an overstuffed mess. Tracks that may feel like filler at first blush eventually sidle into your mind to stay—for every “Total Entertainment Forever” or “Ballad of the Dying Man,” with their immediate, uptempo presentations of tightly focused social critiques, there’s an “A Bigger Paper Bag” or “The Memo,” whose subdued, yet dynamic instrumentals and more nuanced concepts reward repeat listens. Pure Comedy is an embarrassment of songwriting riches, and its performances—particularly Tillman’s persistently pretty vocals—shine without distracting from that fact, from the cosmic overture of the title track to Pure Comedy’s last act. On “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain,” Father John Misty finally sees his “Funtimes in Babylon” for what they are—a losing fight against time—and on closer “In Twenty Years or So,” he reckons with how little rope we all have left, finding joy and freedom in that fading place, against all odds: “I look at you, as our second drinks arrive / The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place” / and it’s a miracle to be alive.” Whether that’s Father John Misty or Tillman talking, you know he’s telling the truth.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.
Revisit Father John Misty’s 2012 Daytrotter session below.