The beauty of folk music lies in its uniquely backwards-looking, anachronistic character no matter how contemporary its references or composition. Something about the tempo and the timbre of the instruments and the usually yearning, earnest pull of the singer’s voice always harkens back to a(n idealized) communal past or a time (and places) where people gathered to listen (attentively and sans phones/devices/cameras) to hear the singer/band perform. In a way Folk music connects to its past and its history in a more direct fashion, even the novice listener can hear the similarities, perhaps leading to the inevitable query of “how is the song or sound different from what came before?”. Or, perhaps this is all my own invented narrative?
This year I’ve been listening to Folk, Ne0-Folk or Folk inspired albums with increased regularity. (It’s been quite the year in that category already with great albums from Adam Arcuragi, Anais Mitchell, The Tallest Man on Earth, Horse Feathers, and the Heartless Bastards.) One record in particular that has caught my ear of late and for which I’ve developed a fond affinity is Father John Misty’s Fear Fun.
To hear Father John Misty (aka Joshua Tillman) sing, you would think we were still living in a time before the computer had become personal or telephones had turned cellular and portable, and digital still referred to fingers on the hand (not a form of recording). The narrator and cast of characters that flow in and out of Joshua’s songs are a mix of old film noir, Norman Desmond-like Hollywood residents and Kerouac-ian firecrackers (“the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time”). Vagabonds and transients searching for the oft discussed yet highly elusive transcendence of Ayahuasca or engaging in epic bouts with the bottle like some deluded movie mogul. The allusions and references to America’s rich and raucous cultural history pour forth and trample through nearly every track painting an aural Camino Real or better yet a latter day “Desolation Row“, a visage of our country as a land of colorful sinners and saints, thrill seekers who have only passing pangs of concern about love making over a cemetery grave. But as rich a textual tapestry as Joshua paints, the album rises and falls on the quality of the musicianship, which is superb and blossoms with repeated listen.
For all the eccentric elements, Fear Fun sounds and feels like a natural extension of the mid 20th Century popular folk rock, which moved away from allegorical and historical narratives to celebrations of the minutae of everyday life. I can’t help but hear shades of Harry Nilsson‘s “Everybody’s Talkin‘” in “Nancy From Now On” (click on the song titles to compare; forewarning the latter may be NSFW). It is the summer-sun drenched over saturated vision of America in seemingly less complicated times but with the underlying (Lynchian) sense that the pristine, picket-fence veneer is housing demons ready to unleash with the fury of a besotted Howard Hughes – which I have to admit is one of my favorite lines and references in the record. FJM also ventures away from whimsical Laural Canyon folk into more upbeat almost country folk on the witty “I’m Writing A Novel” (which sounds a lot like Clem Snide circa the early ’00s), bayou blues with a dab of CCR on “Well, You Can Do It Without Me” or hoe-down territory with “Tee-Pees 1-12″. He even gets into a pseudo secular hymn with ” O I Long to Feel Your Arms.” But, Fear Fun is at its best when it mixes aural gravitas with the surreal imagery of his lyrics as in “Only Son of the Ladiesman.” Although he is singing a stirring and mournful number, it is near impossible to take him seriously and not chuckle on lines like “I’m a steady hand, I’m a Dodger’s fan” or “I swear that man was womankind’s first husband.” Is this an homage to the the Dude? Whatever the actual subject of the song, it’s captivating and evocative, just like a great folk song should be. So get ready for the preacher/shaman/storyteller to unfurl a furious sound and…
Listen to Fear Fun in its entirety here.