Halfway through ‘Pure Comedy’, title track of the 2017 album of the same name, Father John falls to the ground Misty. On his knees in front of the audience, he assumes a prayer position. It’s not the first time this evening. “This is going to be a long night of despair,” he had warned an hour earlier. He pulls himself up on the microphone stand and sings comforting words: “Each other is all we’ve got”.
A Father John Misty concert is an enchanting parade of double signals. He is an uncomfortable performer (“Awright”, he mutters after the first round of applause) but emulates greats such as Harry Nilsson and Barbra Streisand. He dances like the bear Baloo from Jungle Book, with the posture of a giraffe. But he dances, and that is quite something for the singer who in the past stood motionless on stage and sometimes wanted to offend his audience.
Father John Misty, stage name of Joshua (or J.) Tillman for short, has a special place in the Los Angeles pop world. His music is melancholic, orchestral and sometimes bombastic. His lyrics are poetic and often difficult to fathom. Tillman is an inveterate romantic who approaches life and love as sources of wonder and defeatism: the earth is a vale of tears and love is a horsepower to fill ‘this black hole in me’. While there is a regular “Mr. Tillman” pops up in his songs, he does not readily admit that his lyrics are autobiographical. He is the outsider who observes and reflects on human nature.
His fifth album Chloe & the Next 20th Century (2022) is a song cycle that looks back musically and thematically on Hollywood’s film past. Orchestras and voluptuous melodies were not spared in Jonathan Wilson’s production. Tillman was faced with the dilemma of how to bring that great sound to the stage. His current live band is the best possible approximation of a much larger orchestra, majestic and compelling with three horns and subtly played synthesizers, from which a lone violin could sometimes sound.
In De Melkweg, Father John Misty and his nine-strong ensemble gave a beautiful excerpt from the five albums that span his oeuvre. From the diabolical sex fantasy ‘Nancy From Now On’ to the doom-pregnant ‘The Next 20th Century’, a range of lyrical subjects were turned upside down, with the conclusion that a good love song survives all time. The yearning ‘Goodbye Mr. Blue’, with echoes of Glen Campbell’s classic pop sound, turned out to be addressed to a deceased dog. In a dialogue with the public, Tillman had determined that there were others who had recently lost a beloved four-legged friend. The love song didn’t get any less touching.
Father John Misty’s new album is timeless and compelling
With only five songs of it Chloealbum and as much of the older one I Love You Honeybear some key songs were missing from the setlist, such as ‘Buddy’s Rendezvouz’ and ‘Kiss Me’. There was, however, a wonderful ‘Funny Girl’, with horns that seemed to have been plucked straight from the soundtrack of a black and white film from the 1920s, and the waltz tempo of ‘(Everything But) Her Love’. Significant was the line “He watches tv/ she reads the I-Ching” about lovers who are doomed to live apart forever.
Every now and then a disturbing noise storm appeared in the melodious music, with a spicy rocking ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ and the synthesizer pulse driven ‘The Next 20th Century’ as a sign that this music is indeed of today. In Father John Misty’s songs, atomic bombs fall, Batman actor Val Kilmer appears as a comedy figure and Wagner is listened to on the balcony. Ride of the Valkyries. After all the rich pop lyricism, Tillman sang a remarkably simple “Don’t Be Cruel” in his encore, almost unrecognizable as the Elvis song in a slow version dripping with melancholy. Even after saying yes in church you can’t be sure of anything, Tillman hinted in the evening’s only cover. The audience was silent as a concert began to resemble a musical séance.
With ‘Maybe love is just an institution/built on human frailty’ (‘Holy Shit’) an evening of high emotions ended. For the born cynic that is Father John Misty, his acceptance speech at the end sounded surprisingly sincere.
A version of this article also appeared in the March 6, 2023 newspaper