Love him or hate him, Josh Tillman—the real life mastermind behind Father John Misty—is one of the most interesting people in music at the moment. It’s impossible to predict what he’s going to do next; one day he’ll release a nightmarish lullaby for Stephen Colbert and the next, debut an uber-meta cover of Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift in the style of The Velvet Underground. Practically the definition of spontaneous, Tillman is one of the funniest comedians around and it’s precisely that wicked sense of humor and witticisms that makes his music so arresting and profound.
Even before this stint presenting as Father John Misty, the man behind the character released music with Fleet Foxes, as well as a remarkable eight albums as J. Tillman. In addition to his three studio LPs, with Pure Comedy only gracing us with its release three weeks ago, Misty has recorded all kinds of non-album tracks like his sardonic fake Prius commercial soundtrack, now-deleted sardonic generic pop songs and b-sides and demos like the horrific “Maybe, Sweet One, You Won’t Have Nightmares Tonight” and the heartfelt “Nothing Hurts Worse.”
Considering only his album tracks and his most popular, pervasive single, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to rank every song by Father John Misty. Don’t forget to read our cover story, too.
Over a delightful retro keyboard line, Josh Tillman roars and yelps, his voice straining before the song’s slowed-down, nearly a capella conclusion. Recalling the best of the more upbeat side of the ‘70s Laurel Canyon music scene, where he later relocated to write I Love You, Honeybear, “Well, You Can Do It Without Me” could easily be interpreted as his “goodbye Fleet Foxes” song – “If you’re bound for the throne but the king won’t die” and “Yeah you can do it, but you can do it without me.”
A huge percentage of Fear Fun was influenced by psychedelics, specifically mushrooms and Ayahuasca. “Tee Pees 1-12” begins with fairly innocent intentions, but quickly devolves into pure absurdity, as Tillman meets a “cosmic serpent with pants rolling into his hair,” hosts his own TV show and gets a skin graft to match faces with his partner. “Tee Pees” is a delightfully corny hoedown, complete with claps and a fiddle, and as a result, acts as a relative musical outlier with the rest of his catalogue.
This month’s Pure Comedy is a lengthy album with two songs pushing 10 minutes or more and only three running fewer than four minutes. “Magic Mountain” is one of the long ones, and it includes a gratuitous five or so minute-long instrumental full of fuzzed out keyboards and slide guitars that eventually collapse on itself to form something reminiscent of Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine score. Using the name of L.A.’s most famous roller coaster theme park as a metaphor, “Magic Mountain” addresses Father John Misty’s understated fear of aging.
Before writing Fear Fun, Tillman did in fact write a book, titled Mostly Hypothetical Mountains. “I was using these dormant abilities— witticism, satire, etc., and having a really fucking good time doing that,” Tillman said in 2012. “I hadn’t enjoyed the creative process in so long, not in an innocent, creative way, as opposed to, ‘Is this album good? Is this gonna help my career?’ There was no lust for success, and I think that once I accessed that, I couldn’t really go back to the old style of songwriting once I’d done that.” “I’m Writing a Novel” is the musical culmination of Tillman’s experiences on hallucinogens and book writing; Father John Misty as we know it wouldn’t exist without the two.
One of the most blatant and straightforward songs on Pure Comedy, “Smoochie” is a love song without any subtext of sarcasm or wider commentary on politics or the world as a whole. Though its lyrics are simple, it doesn’t land like other tracks like “I Went to the Store One Day” or “20 Years or So.” That being said, look for this one to be featured in a future indie romantic comedy at some point in the next five years.
Though he may have made three “Generic Pop Songs as a total joke, Father John Misty tries out electronics and synthesizers for the first time. It largely works, even though it doesn’t really flow with the rest of I Love You, Honeybear. Clearly an intentional use of irony, he mockingly laments about having to use modern technology to have a meaningful conversation over his most electronic beat to date.
Though he gets more personal in his later work and blurs the line between Josh Tillman and Father John Misty, it’s important to remember that Fear Fun is largely about a made up, hard drinking, womanizing character. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2,” a track about sleeping around and trying to find yourself in the process, rather than through other people. The line “I don’t know how they got here / I don’t know what to say about this / And they all go that way” is tinged with regret, illustrating one of the few times Father John Misty The Character actually feels any semblance of guilt.
The second single off Pure Comedy, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is Tillman’s preachiest song, released just 10 days into the Trump presidency. While he addresses politics throughout the album, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is the only one that doesn’t even attempt to shroud itself in any sort of metaphor, describing the increasingly large divide between liberal and conservative America, never showing where he stands himself. It’s perhaps the slowest song on Pure Comedy, but features interesting percussion in the middle third.
Here’s another of the rare instances in which Tillman (mostly) ditches the Father John Misty character and writes a sentimental song about his relationship with his wife, Emma. With throwback doo-woppy “oohs” and “ahhs,” he sings about how Emma’s personality is unchangeable and that the little things, like simply seeing her smile and going on walks, is what matters most in their relationship. Whether the “aimless, fake drifter and the horny man-child mama’s boy” is Father John Misty or Josh Tillman, “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” is one of his sweetest love songs to date.
Josh Tillman knows how to end a record. Though this is the weakest song of the three album closers, it’s still strong, mixing religious metaphors with personal statements. The song’s lyrics address his Father John Misty character in the most blatant way possible: “Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones couldn’t give me a myth / So I had to write my own / Like I’m hung up on religion though I know it’s a waste / I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J.” Ending his first album as Father John Misty while poking fun at his past projects, the companion he “needs” may actually be himself.
Pure Comedy rewards those who give it multiple close listens, and “A Bigger Paper Bag” showcases some of those subtleties, especially in its lyrics. Musically, the breezy percussion and acoustic guitar strums give “A Bigger Paper Bag” a relaxing feel, broken up by a warm keyboard breakdown. But lyrically, Tillman again addresses his anxieties about technology with lines like, “The weaker the signal, the sweeter the noise / Hunching over an instrument that you now employ.” He also compares “a child with cash” and “a king on cocaine,” a strong simile to find buried in a pop song.
Fuzzed out guitar solos and possibly Tillman’s strongest vocal line to date, “Strange Encounter” details an instance where a houseguest—presumably Emma, since it came off Honeybear—almost dies of alcohol poisoning. Pleading to his guest not to “be my last strange encounter,” Tillman admits, “Though neither one of us would leave unscathed / At least we’ll both go on living.” This is possibly the darkest song in his back catalogue (except the satirical “Maybe, Sweet One, You Won’t Have Nightmares Tonight”).
As noted prior, I Love You, Honeybear signals the blurring of Father John Misty and Josh Tillman, and this is the toughest track to parse out. In an 2015 interview, Tillman described a time when he was drinking at The Thirsty Crow (yes, it’s a real bar in Silver Lake) and he overheard a “very insecure, petulant imp who [was] objectifying the woman he claims to love, thinking of her like an object that is his.” But this takedown seems in contrast to the narrator-character her presents throughout Fear Fun, which is precisely why he’s so fascinating as a writer. By hiding himself in a different character, it’s near impossible to figure out where Misty ends and Tillman begins.
“Birdie” is one of the only songs explicitly about escapism throughout his three albums. Throughout Pure Comedy, Tillman critiques modern politics and society at large, but only here does he ever envision leaving it. He’s cautiously optimistic about the future, however, patiently waiting for a world that relatively disregards gender, race, violence and more. The song crescendos as he sings, “Oh, that day can’t come soon enough / It’ll be so glorious,” interrupting one of the quieter tracks on Pure Comedy with one of the most interesting musical moments on the whole record.
This is the first time that Father John Misty becomes the sarcastic Father John Misty we all know and love. Pointing out the hypocrisy between environmental advocacy and vinyl and art collection, “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” almost reads like one of his interviews—funny, witty and cynical as hell. You can almost see the smirk on his face throughout this whole song, especially when he jokes at the end of the song that “I sure hope they make something useful out of me.” It’s the first, but certainly not the last time he lets his sense of humor shine.
The simplest song Tillman has ever written. Sandwiched between the drug-addled hysteria of “I’m Writing a Novel” and “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2,” “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” is direct, short, sweet and primed for sentimental mixtapes.
Fear Fun track “This is Sally Hatchet” describes a girl that’s disinterested in the world at large. While different in a few key ways to the woman depicted in “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment,” the two are actually fairly similar, full of insufferable entitlement. The track ends with a cool distorted guitar solo analogous to the breakdowns throughout I Love You, Honeybear.
Like “Now I’m Learning to Love the War,” “Ballad of the Dying Man” distills Father John Misty’s brand of humor. Here, he takes on Internet critics of the day, which is pretty much all of us in 2017. “So says the dying man once I’m in the box / Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok / And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked / The homophobes, hipsters and 1% / The false feminists he’d managed to detect / Oh, who will critique them once he’s left?” is the 2017 version of the first verse of “Now I’m Learning to Love the War,” just beefed up on steroids. Few musicians assess society’s technological obsessions quite like Josh Tillman, and this track shows him at his ironic best (especially since his interviews like Paste’s cover story have kept him in the music news cycle for weeks on end).
The middle third of I Love You, Honeybear tends to drag a bit, but everything speeds up again with the opening bars of “The Ideal Husband.” The five cymbal hits that kick off the song indicate that the album is going in a wildly different direction; “The Ideal Husband” is without a doubt the hardest rocking Father John Misty song. The track hits a fever pitch towards the end as Tillman’s voice reaches to a scream when he growls, “WOULDN’T I MAKE THE IIIIIIIDEAL HUSBAND?” His resulting “oohs” succumb to the best guitar solo throughout his three records. “The Ideal Husband” is Misty’s loudest song and subsequently one of his best live songs, as well.
Originally posted to Soundcloud in September 2015 right in the middle of his American tour in support of I Love You, Honeybear, the final version appeared in the final third of Pure Comedy. Upon first listen of album version, the listener is forced to do a double take toward the end of the song (which veers wildly from mentions of Greek mythology to critiques of Spotify curated playlists in the span of less than a minute). Those new to the Misty brand of humor might wonder if he meant to include the robotic, Siri-like voice in the track’s bridge, but discerning listeners know this was a conscious decision. It’s from the guy who added a canned laugh track onto an earlier song, after all.
The opening lines of I Love You, Honeybear’s title track—“Oh, honeybear, honeybear, honeybear / Mascara, blood, ash and cum on the Rorschach sheets where we make love”—is everything we love about Tillman. He just can’t write a sentimental lyric without some witty, sardonic addition to fuck it up. At the end of the first verse, he sings, “It’s just how we expected.” After Fear Fun and the one-two punch of the first singles from his sophomore release, “Bored in the USA” and “Chateau Lobby #4,” the lyrics of “I Love You, Honeybear” are pretty much exactly what we expected, and that’s a great thing.
In prime album-closer fashion, “In Twenty Years or So” almost perfectly sums up the insecurities and truisms about society at large that make up the majority of Pure Comedy. These days, it’s easy to believe the world might actually end in 20 years or so, but Father John Misty reminds us that as long as we have human companionship and music, there’s really nothing to fear. He sings, “But 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.” Pure Comedy ends with a beautiful string instrumental, somewhat reminiscent of the way Radiohead added “Untitled” to the conclusion of Kid A. Sure the last minute or so of “In Twenty Years or So” may be a tad gratuitous, but it’s a stunningly gorgeous way to end the triumph that is his third LP.
Sometimes it’s impossible to separate a song from the movie or TV show it soundtracks. And for fans of HBO’s Eastbound & Down, “Only Son of the Ladiesman” is inextricably linked with the show’s most intense scene; when Kenny Powers finally makes it back to the majors, only to throw two pitches and walk away. The song features one of Tillman’s prettiest melodies, and those elegiac, yet, upbeat “oohs” and “aahs” just sound so good. “Only Son of the Ladiesman” might be the only Father John Misty song in which the lyrics are secondary.
With the exception of some backup vocals, it’s just Tillman and his piano here, and boy, it is gorgeous. Full of biblical imagery, he describes the rapture while questioning how God can judge us if he made such a “savage and unjust” world. “We crawled out of the darkness and endured your impatience / We’re more than willing to adjust and now you’ve got the gall to judge us,” is one of Tillman’s most brutally honest lyrics, one that’s never resolved. Posing life’s big questions in a song full of falsetto is ambitious, but he does so full of grace.
The one non-album track we were forced to include also happens to be his most played song on Soundcloud. “Real Love Baby” is Father John Misty’s attempt at a summer radio hit and it succeeds on almost every level. Gone are Tillman’s trademark witticisms and shrewd observations on love and life; “Real Love Baby” is as succinct of a folk-rock song he could possibly write. Sure, the lyrics are closer to the fake Prius commercial song he satirically wrote to make fun of acts like The Lumineers, but Father John Misty’s best non-album single is as catchy as it was inescapable in the second half of 2016.
The first song on his debut album, “Funtimes in Babylon” introduced the world to J. Tillman’s character reset. Looking toward the future in a surprisingly innocent way, the newly invented Father John Misty character is wide-eyed and cautiously optimistic, echoing the sentiment of every wannabe actor or actress moving to L.A.—“Look out Hollywood, here I come!” He knows that it won’t be easy, comparing the music industry to “work at a government camp,” though he’s more prepared than most as he clearly realizes what he’s getting into. But at the end of the day, there are no real ulterior motives here—the drug trips, the sleeping around and the pessimism concerning the American pop culture zeitgeist all come later. For the first three minutes and 39 seconds of Father John Misty, he’s, well, happy, even if the world is going to end.
While “Funtimes in Babylon” represents an uncorrupted Father John Misty, “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” is the polar opposite. Here he takes every hallmark of a love song and trolls the hell out of it. He’s sarcastic to the extreme, taking on the stereotypes of the white Valley Girl and poking as much fun as humanly possible, every word brimming with a viciousness previously unseen in his music. And the best part? “Josh Tillman” in this song is absolutely hilarious. The girl he writes about, one who steals his drugs, uses big words she doesn’t understand, sings like she’s black and thinks she’s at the center of the universe, is cartoonish to the point of ludicrousness, and it’s hard not to laugh at his descriptions of her, even if there’s a lingering sadness, as well.
The catchiest and most upbeat song on Pure Comedy, we all knew “Total Entertainment Forever” would steal the headlines upon first listen—joking about VR sex with Taylor Swift ensured that. But with a saxophone breakdown reminiscent of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and razor sharp lyrics about the future of pop culture consumption, it’s of utmost importance to get past that first line and the untold number of think pieces devoted to it, regardless of you think that joke lands or not. “Total Entertainment Forever” is as smart as “Famous” by Kanye West isn’t; Tillman references that infamous line to make a broader, and ultimately bleaker, point about our relationship with technology and entertainment, all while shaking his hips harder than ever before.
Semi-innocent Father John Misty from “Funtimes in Babylon” is already gone by 20 seconds into “Nancy From Now On,” the second track on Fear Fun. Destroying his liver on a nightly basis, Hollywood has already corrupted Father John Misty, routinely waking up with black eyes and destroying everything in his path. His adopted home isn’t everything he thought it’d be; though he found that “milk and honey flowed just a couple states below” his previous home in Washington state, he’s fallen victim to excess, wishing someone could “give me how it was.” Though he may have changed just a short time after moving to L.A., the same gentle strums from “Funtimes” flow through “Nancy From Now On,” proving that just maybe, he had this self-destructive streak in him all along.
As is the case with “I Love You, Honeybear,” the track that precedes it, “Chateau Lobby #4” is a vulnerable love song masked in something else. “I was trying to create this just kidding! bluster, trying to make this barter with myself, like, ‘I’ll let you be this exposed if you let me cloak these songs in giant, deranged, impenetrable Disney-orchestra arrangements,’” Tillman said in an interview in 2015, describing the writing process for the song. “[Emma] told me that I needed to not be afraid to let the songs be beautiful.” He even says it in the chorus – “I’ve never done this / Baby be gentle / It’s my first time,” a line probably more about writing a song like this than sex. So after throwing in a few unconventional metaphors to protect himself, he drops one of his most adorable stanzas to date: “First time you let me stay the night despite your own rules / You took off early to go cheat your way through film school / You left a note in your perfect script: ‘Stay as long as you want’ / I haven’t left your bed since.” With a mariachi band to boot, Tillman nails the feeling of what it’s like to fall head over heels for someone at the beginning of the relationship. Because as he says, is there anything we want more than finding someone who hates all the same things as we do?
“…Before the Revolution” starts like many on Pure Comedy, descriptions of a post apocalyptic world over a pretty piano line with minimal percussion. But midway through, something changes and for about a minute, the song turns into something else entirely, something resembling a James Bond theme. That minute, when Tillman’s voice raises in order to fight off the swelling horn and string sections, is among his most spellbinding and enthralling compositions. When he sings, “Industry and commerce toppled to their knees / The gears of progress halted / The underclass set free,” you can feel it—the music perfectly reflects the horror and intensity that the “revolution” could bring. But after the initial shock, the song returns to its original relaxing state with Tillman’s falsetto leading the way, prompting the listener to ponder if a change in the world order would be such a bad thing after all.
In late 2013, Father John Misty went on a solo acoustic tour, where he tested out many of the tracks that would end up becoming I Love You, Honeybear. When he got to the last section of “Bored in the USA,” played this time on guitar, people actually laughed. And while the song was funny enough without it, Tillman’s decision to add a laugh track on the album version was nothing short of genius, giving Father John Misty The Character’s life a cartoonish, sitcom feel. So when everyone was freaking out when he added the canned laughter into his Letterman performance of the song in late 2014, we should have known it was coming. On top of that, the way in which he describes a not-necessarily-failing-but-certainly-not-exciting relationship is incomparable—“a passionate obligation to a roommate”— is gut-bustingly funny within a song describing a sentiment that’s anything but.
“I used to like this guy / This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die” could sum up every Father John Misty critic’s gripes with this song. Yes, it’s more than 13 minutes long. Yes, it’s the same few chords over and over and over again. Yes, it’s Josh Tillman testing us, seeing exactly how much he can get away with. But “Leaving LA” is also his most profound, lyrically. Each of the track’s 659 words are included for a reason. Tillman meanders throughout life, mirroring the life of the protagonist of Siddhartha, which is constantly referenced throughout the song. He sees himself become a star, just to lose his grasp on humanity and the character he portrays eventually becomes more important than the songwriter himself. There’s a lot of actual biography here – “washing dishes, playing drums [in Fleet Foxes] and getting by” – but it’s mixed in with mythology, once again clouding the divide between what’s real and fake. In some ways, it’s a tough song to get through, but it’s like “Desolation Row” was to Bob Dylan—a track that cements his songwriting legacy.
The first single of his reinvented solo career, Tillman knew he had to change things up. He certainly does that here, as each drumbeat here acts as a gunshot from Father John Misty that repeatedly puts a bullet into the musical concept of J. Tillman. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” quite literally a song about having sex in a cemetery, is morbid, funny, heavy and light all at the same time. For many, it was the first introduction to Father John Misty (it was tough to miss that Aubrey Plaza music video back in 2012, after all), and what an introduction it was.
Though obviously written much earlier, it’s tough to disassociate this song with the moment it was released, addressing a shell-shocked nation just three days after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Beginning with TV theme music before launching into the first line, “the comedy of man starts like this,” it was hard not to think about how we had literally just elected a reality TV star to the highest office in the land. The morose Elton John-like ballad later turns into something else entirely as chaotic horns threaten any sort of serenity previously held—the sound of society being ripped apart altogether. “Pure Comedy” represents a country struggling to laugh at itself, though it knows it’s going to be the butt of the joke for at least the next four years.
“Holy Shit,” originally titled “The Atom Bomb and Me,” was written on Josh Tillman’s wedding day. Hectic and frenzied, “Holy Shit” essentially lists all the reasons why love and marriage are illogical, only to return to the irrational reason why he’s getting married in the first place—love. Although Tillman has gone to huge lengths to hide his true feelings, everything protecting him is swept away with each passing line in “Holy Shit.” When the chords change, he’s a different person. He tries one final rationalization, but the argument falls apart immediately, resulting in quite possibly Tillman’s best lyric to date: “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / What I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”
While “Holy Shit” is the representation of Josh Tillman becoming increasingly okay with exposing the vulnerabilities of his relationship, “I Went to the Store One Day” is its next logical step. The Father John Misty character is now long gone. This is all Josh Tillman now (or so he wants us to think). Written about the moment Tillman met his future wife Emma outside of the Laurel Canyon Country Store, there is no bullshit here—no witticisms, no sarcasm, no obscure references to random other things. I Love You, Honeybear is the story of Tillman’s relationship with Emma, an earnest and heartfelt album from a man who is generally not. But by ending where it all started, the Tillmans’ meeting tale is given even more sentimental symbolism.
The song and the album end with a simple realization that Tillman’s life would be completely different if he not randomly run errands one fateful day. As a result, the final line, “I’ve seen you around, what’s your name?” leaves listeners with heart-swelling resolve. “I Went to the Store One Day” is not just Father John Misty’s finest song, it’s arguably one of the best love songs of this millennium.