Father John Misty - Fear Fun

A lush album, packed with heady, sprawling, beautiful Americana.

Label: Bella Union

Rating: 9

Someone famous once asked “What’s in a name?” Well, rather a lot if Joshua Tillman’s anything to go by. After absconding from the good (and high-selling) ship Fleet Foxes, not to mention abandoning his J. Tillman solo project moniker, the newly-dubbed Father John Misty has made a similarly radical adjustment to his musical output. In fact, it’s the very nature of that name change, the sense of identity and all the necessary baggage that goes along with it that shapes what could well be called, now eight solo albums down the line, his new debut album.

Leaving behind the acoustic dirges of his previous solo work, ‘Fear Fun’ is an altogether lusher record: where J. Tillman strummed, Father John Misty orchestrates; where Tillman moaned, Misty croons. There are crossovers – neither project is ever quite free of the heavy haze of despondency – but the transition is clear, a Tillman by another name sounds quite, quite different.

That said, the difference in question manifests itself in familiar fashion. In fact, some fellow reviewers have gone so far as to claim that ‘Fear Fun’ borders on plagiarism, and there’s no doubt that the album draws on a tradition of revered singers – masters of the likes of Harry Nilsson or Roy Orbison – to create a collection of heady, sprawling, beautiful Americana. ‘Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2’ lassoes in slide guitar, barroom piano plonks and hard-bitten lyrics to assemble a country track worthy of Nashville, ‘This Is Sally Hatchet’ somehow works its way through blues, Beatles atonality and the strings from ‘Kashmir’ and even the much-lauded ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’ brings in the melodic echoes of more modern heroes such as Deerhunter. But to accuse Tillman (or is that Misty now?) of being derivative would be to ignore what’s being achieved here - it’s in his authorship, the new name he’s giving to his music, that Misty revels.

While the wide-open genre of American folk music often revolves around the pioneer spirit, the manifest destiny in seeking that elusive, golden West Coast, Fear Fun aches with the hedonistic hyperreality of what eventually became of that shoreline, the kind of full-to-the-brim emptiness that the likes of Bret Easton Ellis have similarly opined upon. In looking at its component lyrics, ‘Fear Fun’ is either an incredible autobiography or a collection of quite wonderful stories. From ‘Nancy From Now On’s staggeringly arresting opening lines (“Oh, pour me another drink / And punch me in the face / You can call me Nancy”) to the nihilistic environmentalist’s lament that lies within ‘Now I’m Learning To Love The War’, there’s the sense of someone telling a meaningful story at every turn, with those seemingly well-known musical styles being abused as a base to subvert any easy expectation the listener might get from the twang of a steel string.

It’s that confusion that makes ‘Fear Fun’ what it is – the more styles and lyrics jostle and reposition, the more we understand the man underneath it all. Whether writing directly or indirectly, Tillman’s revealing more of his artistic spirit in these cluttered, historically chained songs than he ever did when he lived up to the “one man and his guitar” stereotype. Amongst ‘Funtimes in Babylon’s hurried mandolin picks we get the escapist lust to “Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved”, there’s the laundry list of personal characteristics set to a steadily beating Western heart in ‘Only Son Of The Ladiesman’ (“I’m a steady hand, I’m a Dodgers fan, I’m a leading brand of a one night stand, I’m a ladiesman”) and, as he strips the album to its core in its final track, we get the most nakedly evident admission of it all - “I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J.” Whether a distancing from the stories told or an exclamation that this is the first truth of his career, it becomes clear that Father John Misty is more than just a name, a cosmetic change or an excuse, but a reasoned, thought-out change in artistic approach – and one that happens to have borne out one of the most endlessly intriguing albums of the year so far.