Richard Edwards (Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s) on Father John Misty’s Persona Suicide Note

“If you don’t like Pure Comedy, I’m not so sure I want you on the ark with the rest of us.”

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard Father John Misty’s music, but it was sometime around that second album. I’d heard of him, of course; the all-present nature of his coronation was part of the reason I avoided it with such resolve.

Well, the second joint dropped and a bunch of friends wouldn’t shut up about it, so I hit “play” on some widget one of them had included in some “you gotta hear this right now!” type thing on Facebook or wherever. I had my complaints cued up almost instantly. The production was too stylized, stiflingly evocative of some mythical Laurel Canyon bullshit, endlessly fetishized by seemingly every twentysomething I knew in L.A. — from their perfectly curated record collection to their $100 vintage camping blanket (ah shit, I’m sitting on one of those now).

The hyper self-aware Internet age primal think “Holy Shit” felt so on the nose. Who was this dude being marketed to? Wasn’t he an unassuming folk singer before? I think I had heard his take on a “lightweight” Dylan tune at some point. He’d injected something deeper and aching into it, if memory served. Was this some masculine response to Ms. Lana Del Rey? Was it cynical — or worse, performance art? I was real ready to hate it.

That was all mostly silliness it turned out, and it fell away completely when I heard “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment.”

“Rats,” I thought. “Sure would’ve been nice to have written that bit of business.”

I don’t know what it says about me (or I refuse to admit) that I fell for that particular song so hard (I’ll let you Google the lyrics if you are among the uninitiated), but boy, oh boy did I ever. It was mean-spirited as all get-out, but at its core there was sadness and a whole mess of self-loathing. The rest of the album turned out to be just as perversely beautiful. The production wasn’t overly derivative or needlessly flashy; it was stately and never at odds with the songs themselves. I Love You, Honeybear is an album about how, at a certain point in a life, everyone enters a relationship carrying the burden of their own uniquely fucked-up past and they will spend the subsequent days or months or years finding a place for that burden to exist within the confines of this other thing. This wonderful thing called “young love” that makes one want to go back in time and re-set one’s history.

Why then does so much music about love portray it as something new, rather than a city built on the mountain of people we’ve been, those we have loved? All of those injuries that, once accumulated over many years, make it so hard to stand ourselves, let alone expect anyone else to. Indeed, Honeybear is an album almost obsessed with figuring out how something so lovely could love something so ugly. Tillman didn’t seem much interested in dressing up and reanimating the corpse of who he had been before Ms. Honeybear walked into that nameless store where he was buying his wine and firewood. He seemed resigned to let it stink up the new house right alongside this young love.

And what stink! He confesses to treating sex — and people — casually. Driving drunk, not using protection. He devotes an entire song to a one-night-stand who overdosed in his bedroom, turning in perhaps the most self-centered ode to someone else almost dying in the history of music. He ends the song I fell so hard for by indulging a somewhat violent sexual request by a woman he despises on account of her limited vocabulary and false sense of worldliness. It would all make Randy Newman blush.

But, in a way, he’s doing the most honorable thing one can do when one’s on the precipice of accepting intimacy from someone else. He tells her, in no uncertain terms, “I’m pretty gross, let me prove it to you,” and then he lets her decide whether or not she cares to stick around. In this case, she does, and maybe it’s because, if his less-than-sterling self-assessment is convincing, it somehow pales in comparison to how deeply felt all the love stuff is. It’s so thick you have to peel it off. It’s Song of Solomon with horns and a healthy dose of California sunshine.

He builds a monument to this woman. He loves her enough to want to be someone different, to reinvent his past or at least atone for it, even if he doesn’t fully believe he can ever really achieve either objective. It feels like love, in all of its fullness, for the first time, happening to someone who suddenly wishes he had waited for it and had something a little whiter to wear to the wedding. Instead, his way of honoring her is by being honest about who he is, who he has been. Who it is, exactly, she’s getting in this whole deal. It was that messy intersection of the sacred and the profane that I responded to. It felt like a more accurate depiction of mid-thirties love than one is usually treated to in popular music. I didn’t buy any merch, have yet to see a live show and never proselytized, but I counted myself among the believers.

It’s insular, a fish of its own mind, the product of empty rooms and late nights and cigarette smoke.

This brings us to Pure Comedy, the follow-up to that breakout. It’s an album that announces itself instantly as a product born of the absolute peak of its creator’s self confidence, surrounded by people who seem more than happy to let him indulge in some hard-won freedom to do whatever the fuck he wants. It’s long — seventy-five minutes give or take. Its subject matter tends toward the paranoid; it’s more than a little hermetic. It is almost entirely devoid of the hooks that made its predecessor so beloved. It’s insular, a fish of its own mind, the product of empty rooms and late nights and cigarette smoke. Defiantly un-focus-grouped, it feels utterly uncompromised.

On FJM’s first LP, we were introduced to a lost young man looking to get into some trouble in Los Angeles, yet sounding almost clinically depressed that it’s come to that. On the second LP, the young man is maybe not found, but he’s in love — still confused but sounding much more energetic than he did previously. Now, the young man is a little older and he’s back in the dark, no longer concerned primarily with the women in his life, but the very soul of the material universe. The first single and title track from the album feels like the song he’s been building toward his whole career; if the FJM project ended right there, it would be fitting. Tracing the fundamental absurdity of a creature whose brain is too big to be passed through the canal that was designed to birth it up until the moment that brain, not quite equipped to grapple with nothingness, begins to invent all manner of fairy stories to put things to right. It rolls along on the back of Misty’s signature relaxed croon until it reaches its fever pitch and he’s howlin’ like a sick dog, “Comedy! It’s like something that a madman would conceive!”

It feels like the thesis statement for Misty’s career and further solidifies its author’s status as one of those rare artists who can say something big about the world by actually saying something big. If I were to teach a class (God help those souls) the cardinal rule would be: “The best way to say something big is to shrink it to a more manageable size.” Writing about small moments in a life, when done well, almost always speaks more profoundly about the human experience than trying to bite that whole apple in one fell swoop. But there are exceptions to any rule, and Misty is one. He can somehow take the macro and shrink it down so that it says something small and personal and timely in a way that feels unfairly tapped into. Some universal well of energy, available to all, but which can only be seen by the right kind of eyes at the right time when squinting in just the right light. Arcade Fire have been trying to do that for their entire career. Many have. It rarely works. This music is frighteningly topical, but it sounds like it could’ve landed here during any period between now and the last half-century.

The title track kicks off what I think of as a mini-suite of conceptual songs, loosely organized around a vision of a world lost to stupidity, boredom and global warming. They come across almost like part of an abandoned project, perhaps even written for the stage, and they underscore a strange sense that this album may in fact be the melding of a couple of different projects, each abandoned at a certain point in favor of a pivot toward something else. If your favorite Misty is the one who wrote “Holy Shit” and sang about the exorbitant price the environment pays for your bourgeois vinyl records and oil paintings, I suspect it is this first batch of songs in which you will feel the most at home. But that’s one of the nice things about Father John. There are so many of them.

At first glance it’s a much colder experience than its predecessor, especially when you consider such clickbait-ready lines as “Bedding Taylor Swift/every night inside the Oculus Rift” (“Total Entertainment Forever”). Although a less crass society might have focused, instead, on the song’s final lines:

When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes/plugged into our hubs/skin and bonesa frozen smile on every face/as the stories replay/this must’ve been a wonderful place.

The day after his Saturday Night Live performance, I found myself bombarded by “Watch Father John Misty Fantasize About Virtual Sex with Taylor Swift” headlines. Depressing, to put it mildly. Could people be any thicker, crasser, eyeball-hungry? It’s all part of the magic trick, of course. Anyone with a functioning brain knows which lyric is gonna suck up all the oxygen in the room. The culture gets to prove it’s as awful as Tillman keeps telling us it is, and he gets a little ink in the process. Not so dumb, that one.

This mini-suite is not my favorite Misty iteration on the album, but it’s thrilling writing. While it’s true that Comedy eschews the immediate hooks of his earlier work, he’s doubled down on the words, which have always been his true selling point. This is words, words, words, at times seeming like you’re hearing them sung off the page for the first time, occasionally awkwardly, attempting to fit them all into the constraints of his boxy melodies. This isn’t meant as a slight. All melodies are boxes, and this is an album — all seventy-five minutes of it — where Tillman’s mind seems to be working too fast to pay them much mind. Not to imply that this first bit is tuneless; “Ballad of the Dying Man” boasts one of the loveliest melodies he’s penned.

It’s when the rigidity of the concept falls away in the back two-thirds of the record that things really get going and the ghost of that album that came before begins to manifest itself most brilliantly. On “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” — a continuation of the writing breakthrough he seemed to experience with “Bored in the USA” — Randy Newman’s “God’s Song” gets flipped around and this time the big fella (or…fellete?) gets a grilling at the hands of his own creation. In this version, an incredulous fearfully and wonderfully made speck of dust on a hurled rock questions how a god who made him as such could possibly be surprised by the generally doomed trajectory of that journey. He practically smirks it into the sky.

You must not know the first thing about human beings/we’re the earth’s most soulful predators /maybe try something less ambitious/the next time you get bored.

Jeez Louise.

In the end, the way he really twists the knife is by finding common ground, a recurring method of indictment throughout the album.

We just want light in the dark/some warmth in the cold/and to make something out of nothing/sounds like someone else I know.

If we’re all more or less the same, and if our deities are as petty, jealous and lost as our president, what chance do we really have? And what good does our continual categorizing of our shared awfulness really accomplish in the end?

“Gee,” he thought, “I don’t know”

On “A Bigger Paper Bag,” we get what might be the closest thing to a status report on the subject matter of his sophomore LP. In it, he ponders the effect of his new-ish found fame on his relationship.

I was pissing on the flame/like a child with cash/or a king on cocaine/I’ve got the world by the balls, am I supposed to behave?

Here’s a familiar Misty, drunk an’ dancing through it all, a new Babylon to debase.

Then he’s someone else.

What a fraud/what a con/you’re the only one I love.

He’s shown a surprising compulsion to pull the curtain back, a modern-day Marjoe Gortner, out on one last revival tour to expose himself as a con since no one else seems in much hurry to do so. Maybe now, as the persona has begun nibbling at fundamental parts of its host, he finally feels the need to expose himself to her. She’s back, with him in whatever late-night emptied room he’s writing this in. Maybe it’s early morning, that hour when the night before begins to peel and reveal something grey underneath. Perhaps he’s trying to get it all out before those greys turn to gold and it’s time for another day and he’s most likely losing his nerve.

The more subtle highlight of the album (we’ll get to the…less than subtle one momentarily) is “Smoochie,” prolly the loveliest song you’ll hear this year and the moment on the album when Honeybear’s ghost gets so close you can touch it. In his simple re-telling of a moment of stress (I’m going to posit that it came during the writing of “Birdie,” the moment on the album where it feels like the Misty machine was left on all night and got a little too hot), alleviated by she who can do so with a simple word or gesture, he’s suddenly my personal favorite Misty.

He worms in and out of his assumed identity throughout the LP, one moment Josh Tillman, the other, Father John.

Or whoever I imagine those two to be.

He came up with the character while reading the Bible, right? Was he thinking about the three manifestations of the Lord? Father, Son and Holy Ghost? Possible only if you bend your mind enough to accept extreme metaphors like how water can transform itself from liquid to ice or gas. It’s all of ’em and none of ’em. I digress. It’s gotten late.

The oscillation between characteristics reveals a truth. The cold moments on here aren’t nearly as cold as the non-believers would have you believe, and the warm ones are colored in a strange shade of blue that doesn’t wash off easily.

Where is this woman who can save him from his mind by handing him a sea peach and kissing his forehead? The moments when she appears seem colored in that melancholy blue.

I may be guilty, as I often am, of overthinking things.

Tillman does seem to have given a great deal of thought to the popularity that came with his name change. He also appears more than a little embarrassed that his magic trick worked.

There’s a scene in Don’t Look Back in which a young reporter is badgering an even younger Bob Dylan on his stubborn refusal to offer a theory as to why he’s become popular. An exasperated, bleary-eyed Bob finally confesses that he simply hasn’t given it much thought. The reporter counters that Dylan seems “almost embarrassed” to be a popular entertainer. Spoiler: he isn’t.

Tillman does seem to have given a great deal of thought to the popularity that came with his name change. He also appears more than a little embarrassed that his magic trick worked. His transformation from Josh to John took, most certainly beyond anything he had imagined possible, and while Dylan and others have slipped into their assumed identities quite comfortably, in Misty’s case the graft and host seem to be rejecting each other.

On his first LP, he explained his rebranding in the album’s final song, “Every Man Needs a Companion.” It boiled down to he’d been reading the Bible and had never much liked the name Josh anyway. On Pure Comedy’s thirteen-minute (!) standout, “Leaving L.A.,” he provides further explanation. He didn’t think the world needed another white thirtysomething who “takes himself so goddamn seriously.”

It’s hard not to read this album as something of a persona suicide note. From its length, to its subject matter to its relative lack of “traditional” hooks, it’s not inviting even by the standards Misty has set for himself. He cops to some anxiety about this public immolation in the same song, which touches on everything from his unexpected fame to the time he almost died after choking on candy in JC Penney as a child. It’s a wildly self-aware song, almost shocking in how nakedly it lays everything bare. Before it’s over it stumbles over a few overcooked rhyme schemes and some clunky phrasing, but for a thirteen-minute high-wire act his feet are remarkably steady.

Two thousand years or so since Ovid taught/Night-blooming teenage rosebuds dirty talk/And I’m merely a minor fascination to/Manic virginal lust and college dudes/I’m beginning to begin to see the end/Of how it all goes down between me and them/Some ten verse chorus-less diatribe/Plays as they all jump ship, I used to like this guy/But this new shit makes me want to die.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for artists who, especially at the height of their voice’s power, opt to take a sharp turn, losing some of the fair-weathers if they must in order to keep the creative act vital for themselves. This album will almost certainly do that, but what an incredibly rich treasure map to what’s coming next if you’re one of the folks willing to get your hands dirty and do some digging. Perhaps this is another of the songwriter’s tests. The price of entry for the next adventure is your patience for his “ten verse, chorus-less diatribes”; if you don’t like this one, I’m not so sure I want you on the ark with the rest of us.

The fundamental misreading by Father John Misty’s detractors is that his cynical-ity and pretension are shorthand for not giving a shit. Some kind of gross-out millennial cool. It’s a surface reading, not far off in its assessment of the parlor trick, but blind to the high-wire act that follows if a measure of patience is exercised. To my ears, he’s made some of the most emotional music of the past decade, and Pure Comedy, though colder on the surface, is no exception. It’s the sound of frustration to the point of madness that after all this time we keep hitting the same icebergs when there’s an ocean of more interesting trouble if only we had the good sense to adjust the trajectory of our predictable, boring, endlessly repeating kamikaze mission. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think we can be redeemed. I share that belief. But he cares deeply that we’re broken, and I think he sees a more brilliant bonfire if not for the limits of our collective imagination. Damnation has the potential to be so much more exciting.

At the end of the “Leaving L.A.,” we’re back to where we started. Josh and Honeybear, in the car, about to trade in their hills and hiking trails for a bayou. He imagines things will be different when they get there. He pledges to stop drinking and fantasizes about the space she’ll be afforded to finish writing her script. But he doesn’t sound hopeful. There’s something else in his voice now.

I think it’s safe to say, despite my initial reservations and some that have cropped up along the way, that I’m a fan of this fella’s songs. I like the risen zombies, the freshly bedded Taylor Swifts, and the race of demented monkeys stuck in their hamster wheel of endless and agonizingly lonely self-pleasure, but what I really want to know is what happened when he and his wife got to New Orleans, and what made him start dreaming of them there.

Richard Edwards is a founding member of Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s. His first solo album, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, is out March 2017.

(Photo credit: Bryan Sheffield)