Father John Misty
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, April 4, 2015
Acid trips will blur the borders of your identity. So will falling in love. Josh Tillman claims that his alter ego Father John Misty, an expansively mythological projection of his own doubt-hobbled self-aggrandizement, was the residue of a lysergic epiphany. And then last year, Tillman married his wife Emma, spurring I Love You, Honeybear, an autobiographical SweeTart of a musical valentine in which person and persona shadowbox for preeminence. But wherever Tillman ends and Misty begins, Saturday night's sold-out First-Avenue performance demonstrated that one or both of those guys is a helluva showman.
Tillman took the smoky, red-lit stage to belt the title track from I Love You, Honeybear, an anthemically staged retreat to monogamy from an irrevocably fucked world. That tension between Tillman's newlywed bliss and his cynical despair for humanity is the knotty center of the new album. Live, though, the specific concerns of the lyrics were often submerged within the broad warmth of the music itself. A six-piece band filled the club with lush, woozy recreations and reworkings of '70s West Coast studio-folk, if a little less crisply than on the album. The many young couples who filled the room might have witnessed one man's psychodrama enacted before them, but this enveloping sound kept them clasped and swaying together.
Tillman can be a gabby guy -- his interviews are often more like mediated monologues, and in the past his extensive stage patter, by turns self-deprecating and acerbic, has captivated some and infuriated others. Late in the set, he not-quite-apologetically referenced his "multiple onstage meltdowns combined with 45-minute Unibomber-esque manifestos" from previous Minneapolis shows. But he was relatively reticent tonight, performing four songs in full before he addressed the crowd. "It's gonna get real intimate real fast," he warned.
That said, "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt." isn't so much intimate as icky: The song climaxes with our hero choking a one-night stand (at her request but to his delight) after laying into her tics and pretenses with labored, contemptuous precision. The contrast between lyrical loathing and the gentle '60s L.A. pop arrangement suggests a song by the Mamas & the Papas that's as topically scummy as the actual lives of the Mamas & the Papas. "Writing a Novel," which followed, was a welcome shift in tone, an absurd open-hearted panic attack of a shaggy dog story with Misty as footloose picaresque fuck-up.
Physically, Tillman is one desirable stalk of hair and sinew. There was a neon heart in front of the red velvet curtain serving as a backdrop; instead of "No Photography" that valentine could have read "Sorry Girls, He's Married." A hint of sternum peeked through a few undone shirt buttons, and he might well have staggered forth from a photo tumblr dedicated to great beards of the '70s. His stage moves were Harry-Nilsson-as-Neil-Diamond, and when he wasn't offering his body up to the crowd, striding or surfing among us, his back-turned ass-wriggling on the drum risers was exciting in a manner that didn't necessarily correspond to your sexual orientation.
Given his charisma, Tillman's most swaggering numbers were his most successful: "Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow," about how neither he or his baby can go out without someone trying to fuck them, and the paranoid and self-lacerating "An Ideal Husband," for which he tossed away his acoustic guitar brazenly and grabbed the microphone stand with just the right amount of deliberate casualness. But Tillman was knowing about his shtick too. After asking if we were having a good time, he paused. "I'm doing that thing where I mope around the house all day," he admitted, "and I have the audacity to ask you if everything's OK." He promised for an audience Q&A, but continued the show after sharing his favorite vegetable. ("Vegetable medley.")
After a gorgeous "Funtmes in Babylon," it was something of a dour wind-down, with the self-recriminating music business ecology lesson, "Now I'm Learning to Love the War," leading into "Holy Shit," a litany of what sucks about being alive in 2015. The latter was enlivened by some lighting bombast and another foray into the crowd, from which Tillman returned with a graceless face-plant that seemed right in character. The sociopolitical mode carried over into his first encore, "Bored in the USA," an SSRI-abuser's idea of a protest song during which Tillman directed a spotlight onto random folks in the upstairs section of First Ave.
"Any Leonard Cohen fans here?" Tillman asked next. Cheers. "Not for long." That introductory joke was more effective than Tillman's competent take on Cohen's "I'm Your Man." The concision and wit of the song showed up the baggy formlessness of Tillman's writing. (He had previously boasted of and apologized for a night of "Hit after hit after chorusless hit.") And Cohen's lyric, which requires a singer to commit to roleplaying, highlighted how generalized Tillman's delivery can be. His voice is sometimes merely attractive without being expressive, centered on a supple but still unshakable sob. He'll need to learn to sing as smart as he talks or writes before his ironies cut as sharply as he wants them to.
Critic's bias: A minority opinion: Fear Fun, the first Father John Misty album, had its soggy moments but promised funnier and livelier developments than I Love You, Honeybear offers. Tillman articulates the solipsism that so much genteel indie chamber-folk isn't introspective enough to realize it indulges, but more often than not his lyrical ironies don't complicate his emotions. Sometimes, he backtracks in shame at his capacity for sweetness. Other times, he overworks the old pop cliché that jerks are secretly insecure. But if I need a reminder that assholes can be sensitive, I'll just schedule a prostate exam.
Overheard in the crowd: Between songs the women in front of me repeatedly dissolved into puddles of murmured hessoohott-heessoohott-hessoohotts that were both comically exaggerated and objectively true.
The crowd: Mostly young couples, and small groups of women, though there were a few beefy guys nodding ostentatiously, eyes closed -- really, you know, feeling it.
I Love You, Honeybear
Only Son of the Ladiesman
When You're Smiling And Astride Me
The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment
I'm Writing a Novel
Misty's Nightmares 1 & 2
Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)
Nancy From Now On
Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow
This is Sally Hatchet
The Ideal Husband
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
Funtimes in Babylon
Now I'm Learning to Love the War
Bored In The USA
I'm Your Man (Leonard Cohen cover)
Everyman Needs a Companion
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