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"Fear Fun"

Father John Misty – Fear Fun
07 May 2012, 08:57 Written by Michael James Hall

Dropping drum duties with the increasingly staid Fleet Foxes a little while back, Josh Tillman has made the latest of his solo records (a fruitful trail that runs back as far as 2003) under the pseudonym Father John Misty because, in Tillman’s words “It’s all of me and none of me…You’ve got to have a name. I never got to choose mine”. Cryptic allusions aside, Tillman has used the cloak of an alter ego to splice some of the more appealing core elements of Americana and create some kind of parallel universe 1970s bar room greatest hits set that not once even nods to originality but, strangely, doesn’t suffer too much for it.

A nudging, winking all-American stew boiled up from equal parts Neil Young, The Band, Dylan and with a little peppery dash of cod-Britbeat Beatles, ‘Fear Fun’ is a quintessentially “classic” album albeit occasionally only in tone rather than in content.

The Beatles bluffers need dismissing immediately – ‘I’m Writing A Novel’ (“because it’s never been done before”) takes the tune and timbre of ‘The Ballad Of John and Yoko’ and bandies them around with good humour but to no great avail while ‘This Is Sally Hatchet’ is so referential of mid-period Macca as to suggest it must be a parody – only Tillman’s utterly clear, bell-round voice, a constant joy throughout the record, saves it from total disgrace.

Elsewhere there’s treasure aplenty to be found; ‘Nancy From Now On’ veritably clambers over you with it’s opening line “Oh pour me another drink and punch me in the face/You can call me Nancy’ before lashing you with a shimmy of disco beat and a little bit of psych thunder at the close. Tillman’s lyrical obsession with sex and debauchery strides on in throwaway jags like ‘Tee Pees 1-12’ in which, after much misadventure, he comes to the conclusion “I’m never sleeping in a teepee again” and on the surreal, self-explanatory ‘Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2’ (yes, even the titles are little homages), a song that boasts a Dylan-like smartness and wit with a storm-the-gates awesome melody that drops you somewhere between the great plains and Hollywood Boulevard and tells you “I need a warm hand over the water/Ever since I lost mine in a fireworks disaster”.

This cheeky bard character raises its mischievous head again on the Levon Helm (RIP)-evoking ‘You Can Do It Without Me’ but it’s when the silliness is tempered with genuine intent that this record really hits home and hits hard. Using the ancient Americana instrumental form to cut through modern conceits on ‘Funtimes In Babylon’ a debauched Tillman pines “I would like to abuse my love/Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved” as a Spanish guitar trills. It’s irreverent within the confines of tradition, optimistic within the confines of empirical wisdom – “Look out Hollywood, here I come” he grins, sadly. ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’ is another blazer that takes a brash, brilliant Crazy Horse riff, tears it out across a pounding kickdrum and tells a tale of the dark side that can’t help, like Tillman, but be strangely cheered about the whole situation – “…Tracing the expanse of your American back/With Aderol and weed in my veins/You came, I think/Cos the model made my cheeks look pink” he cries with a good mix of eagerness and confusion, his head jammed with stimulants.

As warm, witty and sometimes stirring as these tracks are, it’s all window dressing in comparison with the album’s two absolute standout genuine instant classic songs. ‘Only Son Of The Ladiesman’ is an obviously Cohen-riffing country rock tune that sits somewhere between cowboy lament and surrealist beauty and brandishes life-affirming lyricism in the cool style of Josh T Pearson to great effect – “I swear that man was womankind’s first husband/I’m a steady hand/I’m a Dodgers fan/I’m a leading brand/I’m a one night stand” he belts in trad but true style. This may be the finest example here of Tillman’s tying perversity and genuine weirdness to aging forms of musical presentation. Then, to close, you get ‘Every Man Needs A Companion’ – a song Ryan Adams has often dreamt of writing perhaps, so rich, simple and touching is it and so declamatory and powerful too. Heartening, hearty and heartfelt; it sounds both ancient and perfect, grand and true.

Dumping the sticks, leaving the supremely successful canoe-carrying band and changing your name to become a pervert prophet of Big Pink (no, not that one) nostalgia and classicism? A great and exemplary choice Mr Misty.

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