Chances are that if you follow alternative/indie/folk music with any degree of interest you’ll have spotted a review of Father John Misty’s excellent new album, I Love You, Honeybear. You’ll probably have spotted an interview or two as well. The critical reception has been rapturous, yet conflicted. There are discussions around sentiment and snide-ness, sincerity and irony, humour and, well, just being jerk. I’m not going to talk about that, because this interview here does it all with skill and aplomb, and it’s massive, and in-depth, and, frankly, is better than my dashed off thoughts will be. And actually if you just listened closely to the album you could use your own brain and hear it all yourself. Just click on the album down there…
So, what am I going to do? I’m going to talk myths. Rock myths. Because in both that Grantland article I already posted, and this Picthfork interview something quite interesting gets discussed. We hear, at some length about the origin story of Father John Misty.
In brief, it goes like this: miserable (but actually still rather excellent) and under-appreciated singer-songwriter J. Tillman joins Fleet Foxes for a bit, then leaves Fleet Foxes, does a load of mushrooms, runs away to Laurel Canyon and, lo, the hedonistic “only son of a ladies man” Father John Misty is born. Fast forward a few years, and Tillman – still Father John Misty to music buyers and critics – is happily married, and suddenly, that character of a womanising, drug-taking misfit is looking back at himself, sardonically, is baring his soul, flippantly, and declaring his love, reservedly, and sometimes beautifully. He’s also performing tracks like ‘Bored in the USA’ live on Letterman, with a canned laughter track as he bemoans the evils of American life (sub-prime mortgages, prescription drugs, shoddy education etc.). You should watch the video. It’s one hell of a performance.
What’s interesting though, is how much reviewers – almost to a man (or woman) – pick up on that drug-fuelled origin story and run with it. It’s the stuff of true rock’n’roll legends. It includes psychedelics, Laurel Canyon (with its links to Zappa, Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Byrds, Love and others), and being bare-footed, in a tree, on a mountain and having a Moment of Clarity.
And it’s odd, because that stuff, as well as being the stuff of legends, is also the stuff of tiresome cliche. It’s so easy to read those kind of tales and sigh, and move on. It’s a dated story of debauchery which we’ve heard too many times before, which you kind of think is probably half made up, or insincere. But, there’s something about how Tillman tells it – his self-awareness, his humour, and the fact that these stories have coincided with two excellent albums (2012’s Fear Fun is also well worth a listen), that makes it feel like more than just a ‘cool story to tell the press’. The drugged up tales coincide with a period of creative achievement – a step change in the music he created. And, now, that they’re a thing of the past, he’s surpassed his last high.
Is there a point to this – I’m not sure – beyond calling out that those old stories of drugs and destinies aren’t perhaps as tired and washed up as I thought. It’s just they’ve come from tired bands with nothing to say. With Tillman he’s shared a story that sounds like something from an old legend, but, more importantly, he’s created a truly standout album. And it’s no wonder that we want to hear the story behind it. And it’s not because it’s a ‘cool story’, it’s because the story helps us to understand the songs he’s created, and those songs tell a complex story that we want to hear more about.