On paper, Joshua Tillman’s act as Father John Misty shouldn’t work. His songs are self-referential, cynical, drizzled with irony, and border on being too clever for their own good. But they’re also warm, confessional, and even at their meanest-spirited (and some of them give mid-60’s Dylan a run for his money) feel like they came from a real person wrestling honestly with real feelings. And for ninety-plus minutes at Covington’s Madison Theater on Monday night, the line between song and songwriter was blurred during Tillman/Misty’s maddeningly good headline show. Tillman quit indie folk juggernauts Fleet Foxes following their lengthy Helplessness Blues tour in 2012 and released his debut as Father John Misty, Fear Fun. Previously, he had recorded as J. Tillman (“I have great empathy for my little sad bastard 25-year-old self,” he mused toward the end of Monday’s set), but the newer material was a major departure, abandoning starker acoustic work for lush arrangements and elaborate songcraft, and in turn dropping the earlier songs from his repertoire. He shot down any concern about a sophomore slump with this year’s magnificent I Love You, Honeybear, a serious album-of-the-year contender.
And that’s the material that Tillman and his crack quintet brought to Covington, and they launched into the new record’s title track after taking the stage to the strains of Serge Gainsbourg. Onstage, Tillman is a man possessed, alternating between intense front-and-center focus and throwing himself around the stage with wild abandon. He howls, struts, falls to his knees at the edge of the crowd, toying with the audience. His sheer passion and dry, best-in-the-business stage banter make it seem like Father John Misty isn’t so much an alter-ego for Tillman, but the real thing shining through. This is especially true when things take on an edge; interactions with some young shutterbugs and request-yellers never became hostile, but in each case his sharp one-liners shut things down pretty quickly. (Let’s be real, though, his massive “No Photography” neon sign came off as more of an invitation than a deterrent.) From the start, this show was viscerally alive, volatile and perhaps a bit dangerous.
For the most part, the arrangements stuck closely to their recorded versions (with the explosive climax to the formerly acoustic “Holy Shit” as the primary exception), but these are songs with cinematic ambition and scope, and, like Tillman’s reverb-kissed tenor, they lose none of their power onstage. “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” gave the crowd an opportunity for a lustful singalong on the (thematically) orgasmic chorus, and the cruel kiss-off of “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.” is diluted by a bemused affection. “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)” remains an absolute wonder, a wide-eyed document of unexpected new love unparalleled in recent popular music. “I haven’t hated all the same things as somebody else since I remember,” he crooned. “What are you doing for your whole life? How about forever?”
Most important, perhaps, is just how much Tillman’s explorations of his own anxieties speak to the fears of a generation. As he took center stage to sing Honeybear lead single “Bored in the U.S.A.,” I couldn’t help but think that an awfully big portion of the audience had probably been sold the same false American Dream he bemoans. “Who said that? Can I get my money back?” A keen observer for these strange times. His band returned for a rollicking run through “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” and “This Is Sally Hatchet.” But the skeletal horrorshow of Fear Fun standout “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” was the real lightning rod at the heart of the set, big, aggressive, but a little spooked and desperate. “Holy Shit” started as a quiet rumination (“Love is just an economy based on resource scarcity”), but ended with Tillman leaping off of his perch atop the bass drum, and he carried the mayhem streak into “The Ideal Husband” to close the set.
Tillman returned alone for the encore (“this is where spontaneous things happen”), and he responded to multiple requests for his just-posted cover-of-a-cover of Ryan Adams’s rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” (which Misty did in the style of The Velvet Underground). “I’ve actually never heard the song before. I just printed out the lyrics and sang it to a preexisting Velvet Underground song,” he said. “But thank you for looking at the internet.” Instead, he gave us a gorgeous rendition of Honeybear closer “I Went to the Store One Day,” imagining an entire alternate future for himself based on a chance encounter. His band came back out one last time to back him in his own strange origin story, “Everyman Needs A Companion,” to close out the night: “Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones/Couldn’t give me a myth, so I had to write my own.” Tillman stuck around for a couple of minutes after the house lights came up, graciously shaking hands and greeting fans at the front of the stage, before waving and disappearing into the night.
All of Father John Misty’s contradictions were on display at this show. He’s misanthropic and compassionate, quick-witted (nay, snarky) but heartfelt, unhinged but in complete control. And that’s what makes him and his music so incredibly compelling. Smarter-than-the-rest lyrics alone aren’t enough to make a star in 2015, but a personality as big and complex as Tillman’s sure helps. His Honeybear tour seems to be wrapping up, hitting the secondary markets and a few fall festivals, but we'll hope he doesn't wait too long to start recording again once he returns to his current home of New Orleans. The first album covered weird Hollywood, the second ruminated on the nature of love and lust. What's Father John Misty's next frontier? Wait and see.
Check out photos of the show HERE!
I Love You, Honeybear
Only Son of the Ladiesman
When You’re Smiling And Astride Me
The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.
I’m Writing a Novel
Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)
Nancy From Now On
Bored in the USA
Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow
This Is Sally Hatchet
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
Funtimes in Babylon
The Ideal Husband
I Went to the Store One Day
Everyman Needs a Companion