Even before he joined Fleet Foxes in 2008, Josh Tillman had established a sound that made virtues of austerity and quiet, pitching his songs at a slow pace that at best bristled with prickly intensity or at worst lulled nearly into nonexistence. His albums suffered when the melodies and arrangements were precise and exactingly purposeful, leading Paul Thompson to decry 2009's Year in the Kingdom for its "lonesome, somber tone, one Tillman-- a funny, amicable dude, if you've ever heard him clowning on himself at a Fleet Foxes gig-- would do well to shake on occasion." Whether intentionally or not, Tillman has responded to this kind of criticism with his eighth album and his first under the name Father John Misty. Perhaps freed by the new pseudonym or emboldened by his nearly four-year tenure as a Fleet Fox, Tillman varies things up on Fear Fun, reveals an adventurous palette, and makes what may be his best album to date. He's finally shaken that lonesome, somber tone, and these songs sound all the better for it: gregarious, engaging, even funny.
It can't hurt that he ditched Seattle for warmer, stranger climes. After a period of deep depression, he loaded up his van with shrooms and drove down the coast, finally settling in what he describes as a "spider-shack" in Laurel Canyon. Of course, Tillman is aware of that locale's revered place in pop history and of Greater Los Angeles' less reputable place in pop culture, and he lets them inform Fear Fun musically, lyrically, and conceptually. Even that new moniker, Father John Misty, sounds like a cult leader, keeping his flock sequestered in an old movie set up in the hills. And the lyrics suggest a Hollywood breakdown of epic proportions, loosely recounting his own walkabout with the sort of mischief and humor largely missing from his previous albums. He opens "I'm Writing a Novel" with a great first sentence: "I ran down the road, pants down to my knees, screaming,/ 'Please come help me, that Canadian shaman gave a little to much to me!'" It bodes well for his novel.
Fear Fun isn't merely a step forward lyrically; it also reveals new musical ambitions. Compared to his previous albums, it's positively kaleidoscopic: less content to be moody and pretty and more intent on getting up in your face. Tillman's warped interpretations and strange combinations of SoCal pop history seem to mirror his own narcotized state: With its billowy strings and triangle beat, "Nancy From Now On" could be Laurel Canyon disco, a mad-scientist hybrid that proves a perfect setting for his careening falsetto. "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" is a Sunset Strip stomp slowed down to a near idle, and the countrified "Well, You Can Do It Without Me" finds Gram Parsons' headstone somewhere in Bakersfield. Every song has its own identity, and the album's slightly fractured vibe speaks volumes about the place that inspired it.
If there's a criticism to be made about the music, it's that it sounds a bit too composed and too contained to really sell the drug-fueled anarchy and municipal depravity. The arrangements entertain a rhythmic stiffness that sticks strictly to the beat, without any syncopation to suggest the messy experiences Tillman's lyrics evoke. He really only cuts loose on the rambling "I'm Writing a Novel" and the psych-absurdist "Tee Pees 1-12", which are the album's clear highlights. He's never sounded looser, weirder, or funnier than when he's recovering from a bad, pantsless trip or when he's reading Richard Brautigan to impress a woman. "If I make it out alive from Hollywood and Vine/ I'll build a cabin up in the Northwest," he sings on "Tee Pees 1-12", but hopefully it's an empty threat: By relocating to the land of Kardashians and Orange Housewives, Tillman has discovered his truest subject.
by Pitchfork reviews