Boy is it hard to keep up a character in the music business. Lana del Ray had to fight the ghost of her former failed stage name Lizzy Grant. Meanwhile Father John Misty turned his back on 10 years of being plain old Josh Tillman. Both decided to exchange for a decadent sepia-toned 60’s version, where dry wit was held in high regard, and singing about sex was still a new thing. So how does it hold up 50 years later?
In his debut Fear Fun Misty managed to give fresh breath to old ballads. Audiences to his shows suddenly realised how much they’ve missed bandleaders who can wiggle their hips, lean on microphones seductively and give you a cheeky wink. The lyrics played with social commentary and debauchery in an amusing way (I’ve got my right hand stamped/In the concentration camps/Where my organs scream slow down man’). And above all Fear Fun bred hits: chorus, riffs, anthems.
Come his second foray into Father John Misty I Love You Honeybear, Misty goes conceptual- a scrapbook dedicated to his newly wedded wife Emma and also, as the press-release goes, a ‘concept album about some guy named Josh Tillman’. So if Fear Fun as the title suggests was the “fun one”, Honeybear must be the album of reckoning, where you look past the playful asides and witty quips and Father John Misty bares his true self. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, it isn’t much.
It’s always admirable that Father John Misty tries to carve an overarching theme and even a plot into the album, putting the role of the album back on its pedestal where it belongs. Unfortunately this does also put the integrity of his “theme” on trial. Throughout, we see Misty constantly striving for a different sound. He lets his songs grate to offset the listener towards the limits of their comfort zone, such as in the injection of ‘literally’s in ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.’, the coy evasion of chorus in ‘Chateau Lobby #4’, or the curveball electronic track ‘True Affection’.
However to me these supposedly admirable wrenches that Misty throws in his works suggest cowardice rather than fearlessness. Musically or personally he keeps evading the hollowness of his own musical core. ‘True Affection’ feels just like a Postal Service rip-off, rather than Misty’s personal version. His evasion of chorus, which he hit so well in Fear Fun, offers nothing in return but buzzwords like ‘challenging’ or ‘uncomfortable wriggle of an album’ as his acclaimers Allmusic and Stereogum lavish him with.
Through the smoke and mirrors of Father John Misty’s “Great Pretender” persona, what actually becomes most striking is how out-dated his musical smirks are. The sardonic superiority of the character from ‘The Night Josh Tillman’ “Of the few main things I hate about her, one’s her petty, vogue ideas’ comes straight from the Catcher in Rye-isms that were so popular in films a decade ago. The most compelling anachronism is from the title-track ‘Unless we’re naked getting high on the mattress/ While the global market crashes,’ which immediately took me back to the final scene of Fight Club.
See the issue with playing a character is like having a sex doll- it constantly requires re-inflation. Father John Misty has tried extending his character’s lifespan by raising the stakes, and unfortunately bit off more than he could chew. Maybe the most admirable thought is that he tried so hard at it, almost in the same way that he can admire a student who ends up spending four times harder at cheating on an exam rather than just revising for it.