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An Audience with Father John Misty at Sage Gateshead

An Audience with Father John Misty

(Sage Gateshead, 13 March 2023. Report by AJ Dehany)

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Father John Misty at Gateshead. Photo by R. Byrne

“As you can tell from all the fake jazz music you heard earlier, I was really floundering during Covid. I had to dig deep.” Father John Misty is no stranger to “deep”: take the deep affect of 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, the deep cynicism and existential irony of 2017’s Pure Comedy, the deep trouble of 2018’s Hunter S Thompson-esque persona-driven travelogue God’s Favorite Customer—and now the deep fake of Chloë and the Next 20th Century, inspired by the old Disney songbook and big band music. The album is sweetly sumptuous, somewhat schmaltzy, and gentler and less acerbic than his prior work in which the Father John Misty persona presented a perplexed and perplexing index of contemporary afflictions addressing and embodying all of our major malfunctions.

On stage and in person the American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer Joshua Tillman aka Father John Misty has always been charismatic, erudite, entertaining, exasperated and exasperating, and something of a lightning rod. He can call himself “a sarcastic Michael Bublé” and I awe to the unattributed Twitteur who called him “Elton John singing Comment Is Free columns.” More than ever he’s really leaning into Harry Nilsson, but his attraction is principally in a very personal appeal to the sensitivity and exasperation of everyone as we live and suffer and behave badly towards each other in spite of ourselves.

Supported by a solid and loud nine-piece rock band with horns, the concert tour is billed as An Audience With Father John Misty. His onstage banter is unforced and endearing. “While we’re in this perfect space for oration…” he addressed the audience at Sage Gateshead, but mostly he left the songs to speak for him. It’s less An Audience With Father John Misty as much as A Little Touch of Tillman in the Night. You hear the cornball Cole Porter swang of his most recent album’s title track “Chloë” and think Yeah but anything goes, then that’s followed with “Goodbye Mr Blue” and you think Yeah but everybody’s talkin’– it’s literally the same melody, the same changes, as Nilsson. People have been slammed in the courts for considerably less. It’s in part a postmodernist joke of some kind but these diversions feel so irritating because they clad in borrowed clothes an ethos and a body of writing that are so his own. Nabokovian games just amplify the distinctiveness and quality of his songwriting. 

Vocally he has the resonant peal of a crooner, but shot through with the tender emotiveness and vulnerability of alt-country. It’s twenty years now since his first album as J. Tillman. The deep sadness of those obscure, haunting and spare, emotionally excoriating early albums from 2003-2010 evoked the devastating dark alt-country of Bonnie “Prince” Billy/Will Oldham and Sparklehorse. The Father John Misty persona arrived as a dramatic vehicle to convey strong feelings in a more entertaining and complex way. Joshua Tillman re-emerged larger than life with a layered music revealing a richer, more developed melodic sensibility. Aggravated chamber pop with country inflections, his characteristic but chameleonic songbook is tuneful enough to please the ear with his golden voice but is straitened by that acerbic quality and rich black humour. He is humorous and cynical by turns but usually all at once, in a way that usually courts misunderstanding. The last line of the listicle of sociopolitical fuckery “Holy Shit” (played in a reduced arrangement as an encore) describes our lovely blue dot planetary home as “This. God. Less. Rock. That. Refu-ses.. To Die”. It’s one of many jaw-dropping laugh-out-loud lines, desperate and drowning in multiple compound ironies, deliciously depraved, exhilarating and exhausting.

The temperature in the room changes when the familiar radio noises introduce one of his masterpieces, a de facto rock opera and an anthem of breathtaking scope and cynicism, “Pure Comedy”. Its closing line “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got” reworks Auden’s axiom “We must love one another or die” — though remember that Auden later revised that to “We must love one another and die” (he musta been listening to early Father John Misty). The persona has grown away from the acid-drenched update of 1970s Tom Waits’s elephant beer blues barfly persona, but Father John Misty was always as sensitive and complex as J. Tillman was. For a while you didn’t know if he was going to go full Randy Newman-esque satirist after Pure Comedy or follow the Leonard Cohen-esque love poet of Honeybear— but the persona seems to have shifted without anyone noticing. He can call it “fake jazz”— it’s another creative iteration in the ongoing emergence of a classic performer and a mature songwriter of wide-ranging insight and appeal.

AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff.

LINK: FJM website

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