Father John Misty – the preposterous stage name that folk-rocker Josh Tillman has been operating under for the past decade – is set to return on Friday with “Chloë and the Next 20th Century.” It’s Tillman’s first album since 2018 and fifth overall as “FJM.”
Before assuming the Misty moniker, Tillman spun his wheels in relative obscurity as “J. Tillman,” putting out eight albums of earnest folk music between 2003 and 2010. His next incarnation was as the drummer for the critically revered indie band Fleet Foxes.
Then a psychedelic trip loosed the scales from his eyes, and he saw a path out of the wilderness: just be yourself — the funny, sardonic, self-absorbed showman who’s done a few drugs, met a few women, and spent some time contemplating this fallen world. Enter “Father John Misty,” the mask that revealed the man.
Tillman then began writing songs that explicitly reflected his personality and worldview. An ex-evangelical who endured trauma growing up in the church, Tillman renounced the Christian faith as an adult and later embraced the high times and misadventures offered by a life of worldly experience.
His first FJM record, “Fear Fun,” is an ironic document of his rebellion, applying a “chief of sinners” confessional approach mostly for laughs. It earned widespread praise and landed Tillman appearances on David Letterman (see below) and Conan O’Brien.
With his even more acclaimed follow-up, “I Love You, Honeybear,” Tillman fashioned his best approximation of a marriage record while still keeping one foot planted in the confessional. Here was love in the shadow of the Fall.
Next came “Pure Comedy,” an ambitious commentary on the folly of human existence, past and present, that sometimes veered into heavy-handedness. From there, Tillman returned to his strengths as a songwriter with the deeply personal “God’s Favorite Customer,” which found him mired in crisis and desperate for deliverance.
In a way, the combination of “Pure Comedy” and “God’s Favorite Customer” painted Tillman as a sort of Ivan Karamazov character. One moment he’s confidently expounding on the nature of reality. Later, he’s collapsed in a feverish heap, overwhelmed by all he can’t control or comprehend. He’s only human, after all.
The latest chapter of the FJM odyssey is now here. In advance of “Chloë and the Next 20th Century” Tillman has released three singles. “Funny Girl” is pure ‘50s crooner while the ornate “Q4” and the autumnal “Goodbye Mr. Blue” both signal the influence of Harry Nilsson. The latter is essentially a tribute to “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
In advance of the arrival of “Chloë” this week, check out the ten FJM tracks below, all collected from his previous albums. They show the man in full: the sinner, the lover, the searcher, the cynic, and the sympathetic soul who “just wants some light in the dark, some warmth in the cold,” and maybe even an encounter with the living God.
‘Funtimes in Babylon’
“Funtimes in Babylon” is a showcase (albeit an understated one) for much of what makes Father John Misty such a compelling artist. There’s the expressive voice, the warped confessional style, the recurring Biblical imagery, and the sly sense of humor. His deadpan delivery of “Look out, Hollywood, here I come” offers a taste of the ironic sensibility that permeates “Fear Fun.”
‘Nancy from Now On’
“Oh, pour me another drink and punch me in the face, you can call me Nancy,” goes the unmissable opening line of “Nancy from Now On.” Here’s Tillman as a man beset by sin and dysfunction, a captive trying to flee his own personal Egypt. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the song’s beaming and pristine production, which makes the whole ordeal sound so inviting. Those feathery falsetto hooks are irresistible.
‘Only Son of the Ladiesman’
The song itself is superb. It’s FJM in self-mythology mode, with an obvious nod to Leonard Cohen. But this performance on Letterman raises it to another level. Strutting, posing, and hamming it up, the six-foot-two Tillman revels in the spotlight while using his muscular voice to transcend the theatrics. When he sings, “Someone must console these lonesome daughters,” the antics take a backseat, if only briefly, to heart and conviction.
‘When You’re Smiling and Astride Me’
“When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” is a gorgeous wall-of-sound ballad addressed to Tillman’s wife that overflows with awestruck emotion, mainly in the form of cascading wordless vocals (think “The Dark Side of the Moon”). But because this is an FJM love song, there’s fear and self-reproach right alongside the exultation. “I can hardly believe I’ve found you and I’m terrified by that,” confesses Tillman. Terror — especially the fundamental terror of alienation from God — is ever-present in his world.
‘I Went to the Store One Day’
Hushed and affectionate, “I Went to the Store One Day” might rank as the prettiest moment in FJM’s catalog. Once again, it’s about his beloved, revealing the prosaic details of how they met and previewing what the future might hold. As for the present: “But now in just one year’s time I’ve become jealous, rail-thin, prone to paranoia when I’m stoned.” When human love is mistaken for salvation, it can take life as easily as give it.
‘Total Entertainment Forever’
“Total Entertainment Forever” fires on all cylinders. Lyrically, it steals ideas from “Infinite Jest” about media overconsumption to skewer the modern understanding of progress. With heavy use of irony, Tillman suggests “the freedom to have what you want” is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Musically, it’s like a vintage Elton John extravaganza, loaded with piano, horns, and pop flair. There’s one hook after another. You don’t want the party to end.
“And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time
Narcissus would’ve had a field day if he could have got online
And friends, it’s not self-love that kills you
It’s when those who hate you are allowed
To sell you that you’re a glorious sh-t
The entire world revolves around
And that you’re the eater, no, not the eaten
But that your hunger will only cease
If you come binge on radiant blandness
At the disposable feast”
‘Hangout at the Gallows’
After spending too much of “Pure Comedy” sermonizing about societal ills and Life’s Big Questions, FJM got back to losing his mind on “God’s Favorite Customer.” The opener, “Hangout at the Gallows,” is the sound of someone who’s gazed into the abyss for too long. Violent metaphors spill out of him: floods, capsizing boats, “psychic terrorists in the upper room,” and sharpened knives (not to mention the title). When Tillman asks, “What’s your politics / what’s your religion,” he seems willing to try anything to save himself.
On “Mr. Tillman,” FJM borrows a page from the “Fear Fun” playbook by pumping humor and hooks into another account of his own disreputable behavior. The scene of the crime is New York’s Lafayette House, a hotel where Tillman camped out for several months in self-imposed exile. After a clerk politely recounts his various and sundry misdeeds, Tillman responds, “I’m feeling good, d-mn, I’m feeling so fine… Don’t be alarmed, this is just my vibe.”
We’re supposed to laugh, and the song’s dreaminess only adds to the enjoyment. But make no mistake, the cry for help is real.
‘God’s Favorite Customer’
Here’s FJM’s masterpiece, a beautifully realized ballad of brokenness and spiritual desolation that feels like it was his life’s calling to write. Everything works to perfection, whether it’s the downcast ‘70s singer-songwriter style, the self-loathing humor (“I’m in the business of living / Yeah, that’s something I’d say”), the celestial backing vocals, or the anguished prayer at the heart of the song.
“Speak to me / Won’t you speak, sweet angel,” pleads Tillman in Psalm-like fashion to the God he long ago rejected. We’re left to wonder if he heard anything in response.