“Fun times in Babylon/That’s what I’m
counting on,” confides J. Tillman on Fear
Fun‘s lead track. But something’s wrong with the picture. One of the clues
is the angelic folksiness of his delivery, which seems suited to
sociopolitical, spiritual, heavy subjects (life, loss, the sublime blues and purples of morning glories).
Beneath Tillman’s choir boy delivery, and a subtle underpinning of mandolins,
is a mournful wink. He’s addressing the tragedy of spirits that are subsumed in
cultural superficiality, impotent transitions, endless homelessness, and
“Funtimes in Babylon” is so
addictively profound (and profoundly addictive), it could be the theme song for
a new movie about Jesus – that is, as long as the line “Look out, Hollywood, here I come”
fits in somewhere.
Tillman incorporates ’60s and ‘70s folk, rock, and pop
influences so completely and naturally; they’re organically fused to his sound.
“Funtimes in Babylon” is ghosted by the verse of
“Mr. Tambourine Man.”
The genius is in the way Tillman builds to that ghost, so that it springs
naturally from the verses before it. The beyond-genius is where he goes from
there; his voice swooping into a touching, higher register. On “Nancy from Now On,” the
ghost might be Harry Nilsson (with a dash of Van Dyke Parks) – it’s a wry
snapshot; apparently set in a late-night bar scene. One of the set’s relative
rib-ticklers is the two-step worthy “I’m Writing a Novel,” which seems to nod
to both the Mamas and the Papas (“Creeque Alley”) and the Beatles (“Paperback
Most of the last six (of the album’s 12 tracks) fall into
the first half’s shadow. Fear Fun is ambitious; nearly in the
mold of iconic recordings such as Dylan’s John
Wesley Harding and the Beach Boys’ Smile.
If the less remarkable tracks sustained the effectiveness of the first group,
or had a few of them been trimmed from the pack, this album would easily be
categorized as “Likely to be one of 2012’s best.” But there are joys among the lesser-rans.
Tillman holds true to the subversive (if subversiveness means telling the
truth) spirit of the ‘60s and early ‘70s with “Now I’m Learning to Love the
War,” a catalog of the resources routinely squandered in ways that include the
production of his own album. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is charmingly
upbeat pop. “Well, You Can Do It Without Me” is enlivening testimony.
Abandoning his position behind Fleet Foxes’ drum kit may be
one of the wisest – and best timed – decisions of Tillman’s professional life.
This is his first album as Father John Misty, and with Sub Pop. A nourishing
collation, Fear Fun has more rock
(than the work of Fleet Foxes, or on Tillman’s previous solo work), masterfully
nuanced production (by Jonathan Wilson), and some exemplary compositions. It’s
likely to provide Tillman with a sustained turning point. If that means Father
John will be inspired to keep creating and performing music this brilliant,
it’s marvelous news.
“Funtimes in Babylon,”
“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2,” “Everyman
Needs a Companion” MARY LEARY