Josh Tillman, who does music under the moniker Father John Misty, is not an artist to underplay his hand, that’s for sure. He’s got a lot to say, and will be damned if he isn’t going to put everything he has into saying it.
Fortunately, he has talent to just about match his ambition. Start with a warm, expressive high baritone, which blends beautifully with itself in the many multi-voice passages. Then, there’s a generous gift for original melodies and harmonies that delight the ear and tug on the heart. The scoring and production (done in conjunction with Jonathan Wilson) luxuriate in richness and resonance, laying on the strings heedless of the calorie count.
And it’s a good thing it all sounds so good, because it’s in service of some of the most despairing lyrics this side of Nick Cave. Nothing escapes Tillman’s dark vision, not his lovers, his country, his generation or himself. Really, this album would be impossible to get through if not for the way the soaring uplift of the music makes us connect and empathize with the artist rather than feel ranted at. Perhaps a better comparison would be with the late, great Elliott Smith, another artist whose bleak words of doubt and loathing (especially of self) were buoyed by sweet melodies and a tender voice, though Tillman’s rambling stream-of-consciousness lyrics and occasionally clunky, against-the-grain word setting is miles away from Smith’s impeccable songcraft.
But as I said, Tillman/Misty has a lot to say, and put everything he had into saying it. Please at least listen to the extraordinary title song. Maybe you can then hear why I found this album, despite/because of its flaws and excesses, so deeply affecting.