New Al­bums

Josh Till­man’s al­ter ego gazes in­ward and turns con­fes­sional on al­bum four. By Alas­tair McKay

UNCUT - - Contents -

In­clud­ing: Fa­ther John Misty, Melody’s Echo Cham­ber, Johnny Marr, Ka­masi Wash­ing­ton, Natalie Prass

Ques­tions, ques­tions, so many ques­tions. three verses into “Hang­out At the Gal­lows”, the open­ing song on Fa­ther John Misty’s emetic se­quel to

Pure Com­edy, Mr till­man is lin­ing them up like domi­noes in a Cold War metaphor. “What’s your pol­i­tics?” he croons, “What’s your re­li­gion?/What’s your in­take, your rea­son for liv­ing?” An odd cho­rus for the first tune on a pop record, but that’s how it goes. there are 29 ques­tions in to­tal on the record, not count­ing rep­e­ti­tions. some of them oc­cur in the course of till­man’s comic nar­ra­tives – com­ing from the mouth of a cock­tail bar­man in “Mr till­man” (“Would you like a Re­galo on the pa­tio?”) or the voice of noah (in “Hang­out At the Gal­lows”), who calls to en­quire: “Je­sus, man, what did

you do?” some of the ques­tions are aimed, in ap­par­ent ex­as­per­a­tion, at the air (“Does ev­ery­body have to be the great­est story ever told?”). And then there are mo­ments when till­man cuts through the static of his own dis­so­nance and says it straight. “You’ve been hurt and I’ve been hurt,” he sings on “We’re only Peo­ple (And there’s not Much Any­one Can Do About that)”, “but what do we do now?”

there were ques­tions on till­man’s last al­bum, Pure Com­edy, too, of course. there was a rash of nar­ra­tive eczema on “Bal­lad of A Dy­ing Man”, and some re­verse mar­ket­ing on “the Memo”. But Pure Com­edy was mostly declam­a­tory, largely mad-as-hell, and al­most en­tirely un­apolo­getic. it was the sound of a man in a room, shout­ing at the jum­botron. the only time till­man en­gaged with the self-con­scious in­ten­sity found on God’s Fa­vorite Cus­tomer oc­curred on “A Big­ger Pa­per Bag”; a bridge over nar­cis­sis­tic wa­ters to the emo­tional mud­flats on which the crooner now dis­ports him­self. “I’ve got the world by the balls,” he sug­gested then, “am I sup­posed to be­have?” it’s pos­si­ble, read­ing be­tween the lip­stick smears, that till­man has been jug­gling those balls over the past year while pon­der­ing this ques­tion.

to para­phrase noah, what do we know, and what do we think till­man has been up to? Well, look­ing at the avail­able ev­i­dence, things both said and un­said, it’s pos­si­ble to put to­gether a bruis­ing chronol­ogy in which till­man’s mar­riage to his Honey­bear, photographer emma el­iz­a­beth till­man, came un­der strain. till­man told Un­cut a few months ago that the songs for this record were writ­ten dur­ing an in­tense six-week pe­riod, while he was

liv­ing in the Lafayette House ho­tel in New York in self-im­posed ex­ile “col­lect­ing mis­ad­ven­tures”. The words poured out, he said, be­cause they had to. The record, he sug­gested, is “rooted in some­thing that hap­pened last year that was… Well, my life blew up.”

That sounds both dra­matic and fruit­ful, but let’s back up. The words poured out. Has there ever been a Fa­ther John Misty record on which the words did not gush as if from a rup­tured hose? They were pretty hy­dro­ther­mal on Pure Com­edy, and – if you open the blinds and re­tune the tele­vi­sion – it’s pos­si­ble to view that record as a break-up al­bum, too, with the world’s prob­lems act­ing as a fu­ri­ous di­ver­sion. Ejac­u­lat­ing words is what Till­man does when he’s play­ing Misty for us. His life, his mind, his pas­sions and his rage are all fair game. Mo­tives don’t mat­ter. What’s im­por­tant is the thing he makes.

And here, the change is in the di­rec­tion of Till­man’s gaze. On his last record, he was look­ing out, hol­ler­ing into the void. Here, he is the vac­uum, and the lan­guage – so cyn­i­cal and un­for­giv­ing be­fore – has soft­ened into the un­cer­tain stuff of the con­fes­sional, de­liv­ered with the grat­i­tude of a man res­cued from a cur­rent he thought he could con­trol.

The mu­sic in­dulges this sense of tidal re­lease, and the Fa­ther John Misty per­sona de-evolves slightly, not quite to the point of for­get­ting how to fake in­sin­cer­ity, but al­most.

Reg­u­lar pro­ducer Jonathan Wil­son’s role is re­duced, on ac­count of him be­ing on tour with Roger Wa­ters, so it falls to Foxy­gen’s Jonathan Rado to scat­ter petals over Till­man’s un­for­giv­ing in­ter­view with him­self. The singer has frivolously com­pared God’s Fa­vorite Cus­tomer to Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, a record that served grief with­out a side salad. God’s

Fa­vorite Cus­tomer isn’t quite that spar­tan. True, the songs rely on Till­man’s habit of ex­act­ing melo­drama from the pi­ano, but the back­grounds are an un­clas­si­fi­able blend of lounge mu­sic and dis­crete flour­ishes of retro dis­cord. It sounds like gospel mu­sic, with the ob­ject of faith be­ing the well­be­ing of Till­man’s psy­che. When it’s glo­ri­ous, it re­ally is glo­ri­ous. “Just Dumb Enough To Try” is Till­man’s “Can­dle In The Wind”, with the singer em­ploy­ing self-dep­re­ca­tion on the way to talk­ing him­self back into a ro­mance. Eli­jah Thom­son’s bass solo – as­sum­ing it is a bass solo – of­fers a note of en­mity, while ev­ery­thing else – the cello, the Mel­lotron – aims to soothe. There’s am­bi­gu­ity in the words, too, of course. Who re­ally wants to hear their lover sug­gest­ing they are dumb enough to have an­other go?

Till­man’s nar­ra­tor is more straight­for­wardly apolo­getic on “Please Don’t Die”, a heart­breaker about mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Some­body stop this joy­less joyride,” he croons, “I’m feel­ing

older than my 35 years.” And yet, the song is not en­tirely straight­for­ward. It reads – though it doesn’t sound – as if the verses al­ter­nate be­tween the singer and his wor­ried lover; him con­fess­ing to “point­less ben­ders with rep­til­ian strangers”, her say­ing, “Honey, I’m wor­ried about you.” But the heart of the song lies in the blur­ring of those view­points. And then, be­cause emo­tions fluc­tu­ate and cer­tain­ties dis­solve, there is “The Palace”, a gor­geous lit­tle story wrapped in a mys­tery. It in­cludes the line, “Last night I wrote a poem/I must have been in the poem zone,” which isn’t ideal, but there’s a swoon­ing melody and a pi­ano that tolls like John Donne’s clock on the mis­deeds of a beached min­strel.

It’s not all maudlin. When it is, Till­man takes care to sugar the pill. The ti­tle track is an all-night drink­ing song, a tearstained bal­lad, and a rum ru­mi­na­tion on the blank ter­ror of lone­li­ness. With Natalie Mer­ing of­fer­ing an­gelic back­ing vo­cals, and Beatlesy flour­ishes on the Mel­lotron, it sounds like a drunk man grasp­ing a this­tle as he tries to blag his way through the pearly gates. Jonathan Wil­son’s gui­tar of­fers acidic asides as the tune smooches to the fade, ush­er­ing in the bleak beauty of “The Song­writer”. On this stark pi­ano bal­lad, the singer sees him­self through the eyes of a wounded lover, who has had enough of be­ing turned into ma­te­rial. “What would it sound like if you were the song­writer?” Misty pon­ders, act­ing as a wit­ness in his own pros­e­cu­tion. “Would you un­dress me re­peat­edly in pub­lic/To show how very noble and naked you can be?” There is lit­tle ar­ti­fice here, no witty asides, no hid­ing in the wardrobe of the shapeshift­ing per­sona; just blood­shot eyes star­ing straight into un-dipped head­lights. It’s blind­ing at times, and that’s what makes this jour­ney round the perime­ter of a bomb crater so ex­cit­ing. In the end, Till­man learns enough about him­self to think about start­ing over. That’s a kind of progress. It’s not the des­ti­na­tion that mat­ters, it’s be­ing hum­ble enough to ask for direc­tions when you’re lost.

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