We spend a lot of time and money making our lives comfortable. Our cars have heated seats. Our trash bags exude vanilla scents. Our headphones cancel unwanted noise. We quash the little life things we don't like.
And when it comes to art, this need for comfort manifests in two distinct ways: Either we need to know the intention behind every word or note so we can label it as somehow authentic, or we want to know that it's all a little glossed-over and phony from the start, safely removed from reality.
But what do you do when you can't figure out what's sincere and what's just a put-on? In the case of Father John Misty, you get used to being uncomfortable, I guess.
Under the handle Father John Misty, Josh Tillman has made this gray area his dominion for two records and countless interviews and performances. His persona is prickly and sarcastic, critical of marketing ploys and people who buy into them. As his May 2013 show at the Cat's Cradle ended, Tillman screamed a string of profanities, basically telling us all to fuck off. He looked and sounded like he meant it.
I still haven't figured out if he did, actually, and that's what most unsettles and intrigues me about Father John Misty. Tillman's music and performances don't have an easy motive I can discern. Despite his statements, he has continued to release records, tour and participate in the regular media cycles. His February LP, I Love You, Honeybear, is a sweet if unconventional collection made largely of love songs. This mix of antagonism and intimacy is as irresistible as it is uncomfortable.
Tillman's lyrics, sung loud and clear, are explicit, especially for rock music on the softer end of the spectrum. He likens his beloved to a blow-up doll during one song and invites her to "lift up [her] wedding dress someone was probably murdered in" in another. During "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment," he describes an insufferable woman who he admits to wooing. The song turns from cheeky fun to "Wait, what?" when he ends: "I oblige later on when you beg me to choke ya." The over-the-top Misty persona leaves me wondering if it's outright misogyny or part of a larger, complex joke.
Tillman's lyrics can be beautiful, too. "Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)," which features the aforementioned murder-dress line, floats on a springy mix of guitars, strings and horns as it celebrates finding the perfect person who hates all the same stuff you do. And during "I Went to the Store One Day," Tillman offers another breathtaking expression of lifetime affection: "For love to find us, of all people/I never thought it'd be so simple."
Honeybear's songs overshare about Tillman's life. He admits that his wife, Emma, inspired these tunes and encouraged him to make them sound pretty. His emotional voyeurism details a relationship none of his consumers know much else about. You're listening to the love of complete strangers, directly distilled into a product you buy and to which you add your own thoughts and experiences. It makes me think about having a partner whose bread and butter is broadcasting unsubtle songs about our lives to thousands of strangers every night. Vague, moody love songs are one thing, but Tillman doesn't hesitate with all the dirty details about his love, doubts and anxieties. It makes me feel anxious, but it keeps me tuned in.
Things get even more antsy onstage, where Tillman recalls Andy Kaufman in his capacity for blurring the border between dry jokes and genuine contempt. He's mocked his audiences' obsession with smartphone documentation, as with the giant iPhone cutout he lowered from the ceiling and posed behind during solo tour dates in 2013. On his Honeybear-supporting stops, his backdrop has included a large neon sign with a pink heart enclosing blue cursive text that reads "No Photography."
But his shows are spectacles that beg for documentation. He struts and poses, peppering his between-song banter with remarks that indicate he's making fun of someone, be it you or him or everyone in the room. You can never quite tell if he wants to be there at all.
So I will continue to parse the meaning behind Tillman's moves, but he's sharp enough to stay a step ahead, it seems. Tillman's work thrives on that tension and dichotomy. There probably won't ever be a solution to the Misty mystery, a comfortable way to make sense of his music.
But, hey, at least my trash can smells like vanilla.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Daddy issues"