The sounding of the proverbial alarms to signify any sort of “ascension” of Josh Tillman, known professionally as Father John Misty, in the year 2022 may seem rather silly a notion to those in the know. After all, the man is now a full decade removed from the psychedelic folk of 2012’s Fear Fun, an album which, while signaling a new musical and lyrical direction for Tillman, was also indicative of a dramatic shift in approach to the creative process as a whole as denoted by the adopting of the Father John Misty moniker.
The album would serve as a creative liberation of sorts for songwriter who, by this time was 9 years into a singer/songwriter career as J. Tillman, the resulting work of which much of the time felt both intermittently interesting and frustratingly unresolved.
Fear Fun displayed an artist with an abstract grasp on his discernible abilities; more creatively advanced than musically, but having yielded no less an engaging effort as a result.
2015’s I Love You, Honeybear followed and, along with demonstrating significant growth on Tillman’s part, launched the musician into the stratosphere of indie-folk regality.
Up to this point – and indeed, beyond – a defining virtue of Tillman’s output had been the pensive, darkly humorous and unflinchingly forthright narrative voice that characterized his writing.
That isn’t to say that Tillman was musically incompetent by any means. He has long been a serviceable rhythm guitarist and, dare I say, a great drummer; playing exclusively in service to the song and having manned the kit prior for Fleet Foxes during the recording of their most acclaimed album, Helplessness Blues.
Tillman also filled the role of backing vocalist during this period, as can be seen in footage of Fleet Foxes’ 2009 Glastonbury performance of “Mykonos,” itself a telling document of Tillman’s musical capacity in a supporting role.
His vocals were often passionate early on, emitted with great projection from the back of the throat. It is this delivery that characterizes the entirety of the vocal work found on Fear Fun, and a fair amount of that found in its follow-up.
At some point during the production of I Love You, Honeybear, it would seem – keep in mind l this is mere speculation, and that this writer is no more an authority on the behind-the-scenes workings of Sub Pop record productions than the next – Tillman tapped into the nuance of his own vocal range.
While tunes such as “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” “The Ideal Husband,” and “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” display a technique more akin to the raw projection found throughout Fear Fun, numbers like “True Affection” and “Bored in the USA” exhibit a previously unheard subtlety in vocal technique.
It would be this nuance that would allot him the delicacy and precision necessary to convey the emotional resonance for later tunes such as “Please Don’t Die,” “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain,” and the bulk of his latest, the nostalgia-soaked jazz-folk throwback, Chloë and the Next 20th Century.
This more subdued approach opened up Tillman’s range, which would reveal itself to include a staggeringly effective falsetto of which the singer could weave in and out much in the same way as Elton John during his unprecedented run of success during the 1970s. It was perhaps this parallel to which singer Ryan Adams was alluding when referring to Tillman as “Elton Josh” in 2017.
Tillman would continue to progress musically over the course of subsequent LPs Pure Comedy and God’s Favorite Customer, which saw the musician contributing keys to some of his music both live and in the studio, while carrying on the tradition of handling rhythm guitar and all drum tracks.
In comparing live performances of early favorites “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” in the early 2010s to more recent renditions, the elevated melodic control inherent within the vocals is palpable.
One would suspect that this progression was not lost on the artist himself who, after an extended absence, went full Billie Holiday with 2022’s Chloë and the Next 20th Century.
Both Pure Comedy and God’s Favorite Customer began the trend in Tillman’s music of drifting away from traditional rock and folk instrumentation toward more piano-based arrangements. Chloë and the Next 20th Century pushed this development further still, employing a big band/orchestra aesthetic which brought the voice to the forefront of the proceedings, cutting through the lush instrumentation to illuminate the intricacies of Tillman’s melodic phrasing.
As an aside – it should also be acknowledged that producer and musician Jonathan Wilson, who has worked with Tillman as far back as Fear Fun, has been – by Tillman’s own admission – indispensable in the manifestation of the musical objectives of the latter.
With over a decade’s worth of recorded output from the artist by which to conduct analysis, it was the very latest release at the time of writing which provided the surge to the lightbulb, as it were, for this writer in their ongoing assessment of the artist known as Father John Misty.
The Live at Electric Lady EP saw release in September of 2022, and was comprised almost exclusively of tunes taken from Chloë and the Next 20th Century; the sole outlier being a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever.)”
This performance sees the artist stripped of what has long been the most efficacious arrow in his quiver: his writing. Sure, Tillman has knocked off the occasional cover in the past – takes on the work of fellow transcendent wordsmiths Leonard Cohen and Neil Young come to mind.
But the explosion into the chorus of “I Believe…” sees Tillman open himself up wholeheartedly to the enveloping embrace of pure, unadulterated pop goodness; an exploit which pays considerable dividends in its delineation of the singer’s demonstrative mastery of his craft.
It’s a pertinent, if not overly significant distinction that the singer/songwriter, whose chief asset was his facility as a songwriter, has proven more than capable not only of functioning but also of thriving as just the singer, if the situation should call for it.
Some of the most highly effective vocalists in contemporary rock – ie: Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse – have singing voices ideally suited to the work or their respective bands, but not necessarily much outside of those established confines.
This is also taking into consideration the number of successful collaborative efforts in which Casablancas has participated throughout his career, including highly successful features on tunes from Daft Punk and The Lonely Island.
Conversely, vocalists such as Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Shinedown’s Brent Smith, and Panic! at the Disco’s Brendan Urie regularly demonstrate chops that could land any of them steady work as studio players.
Tillman is a unique case study in that he seems to have begun his journey as a vocalist more in line with the artists mentioned in the former category and progressed to such an extent so as to transcend the categorization and begin rubbing elbows with the great technical vocalists of the day.
It should be noted, however, with all the love and admiration in the world for Anthony Kiedis, that even early in his journey as a singer, Tillman’s melodic range came more naturally than did that of someone like Kiedis, who has expertly leveraged his own limitations over time to create a unique and powerful body of work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
And while Tillman’s own idiosyncrasies have undoubtedly played an immense role in his own musical and stylistic development, the mastery exhibited over his primary instrument in the current day could very well lend itself to professional “gun for hire” session work in the unlikely event the singer would be inclined to pursue such a venture.
Ultimately, however, what this progression represents is the gradual ascension of an exceptionally well-rounded and incontrovertibly unique musical force of nature.
With an arsenal of boundless creative utility and personality at his disposal, along with a burgeoning technical facility, Father John Misty has positioned himself in such a way so as to adeptly and convincingly conjure any artistic fantasy he sees fit, not that there was ever any serious doubt to begin with.
The Musical Ascension of Father John Misty article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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