by Jasmine Chan
On Wednesday night, Joshua Tillman, also known as Father John Misty, with a backing band one section short of being a full orchestra, captivated his audience within the tent of the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. The horns, strings, and percussion paired with his velvet-smooth vocals hung in the air thicker than the 90 percent humidity.
Tillman opened with “Pure Comedy,” the single that coined the name of the tour and his third album released in April 2017. The backdrop featured animated snippets from the album cover artwork, illustrated by Ed Steed of The New Yorker, which are eerily unsettling and ‘The Babadook’-esque when zoomed in and sectioned off. From a distance, the piece looks like the silhouette of a bustling city, but when you take a closer look, there are skeletons sitting in a TV-room, naked women with utensils eyeing a man laid out like a feast, cultish-figures holding hands around a blazing fire of money, and many more disturbing scenes that each have a story of their own. The cover artwork is reflective of the album as a 75-minute commentary on society and the human experience, whose tracks touch on politics, fame, technology, death, and more with brutal honesty and satire. Pure Comedy demands a second listen to decipher the dark message of his lyrics that so starkly contrast against the soft melodies and pleasant instrumental construction.
In a making-of documentary, Tillman described the album himself:
“Pure Comedy is the story of a species born with a half-formed brain. The species’ only hope for survival, finding itself on a cruel, unpredictable rock surrounded by other species who seem far more adept at this whole thing (and to whom they are delicious), is the reliance on other, slightly older, half-formed brains. This reliance takes on a few different names as their story unfolds, like ‘love,’ ‘culture,’ ‘family,’ etc. Over time, and as their brains prove to be remarkably good at inventing meaning where there is none, the species becomes the purveyor of increasingly bizarre and sophisticated ironies. These ironies are designed to help cope with the species’ loathsome vulnerability and to try and reconcile how disproportionate their imagination is to the monotony of their existence. Something like that.”
Tillman continued with “Total Entertainment Forever” and “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution”, which addresses environmental issues with the opening lines, “It got too hot, and so we overthrew the system / ‘Cause there’s no place for human existence like right here / On this bright blue marble orbited by trash.” The projection on the backdrop displayed the revolving image of the earth, slowly deteriorating into a red-hot glowing orb. The imagery was heightened as it began to thunder and lightning, and the tent kept us in a dry bubble from the pouring rain, basking in Tillman’s prophetic energy.
His performance style was somewhat surprising to me, given the mature indie/folk rock nature of his singing and songwriting and the audience being age 30+ dominated. He navigated the stage rather flamboyantly, strutting in his heeled boots with limp wrists, falling to his knees, and ending songs with a dramatic drop of his upper body while grasping the mic stand. As unpredictable as it was, the audience was thriving off his zeal. Father John was truly preaching to the choir as we sang back at each other with the same amount of passion.
What I enjoy so much about Father John Misty is his charisma, humor, cynicism, and self-awareness that is emulated in both his music and performance. Tillman is so well-adjusted to his growing fame and his role as an artist within this sphere of vulnerable creatures. Within the first couple of guitar chords of the next song, the crowd would collectively engage in applause and noticeably shift their attention as if in preparation for their favorite tune, at which he teased, “Really? This could be any one of my songs.” When heckled with “I LOVE YOU!” he responded with, “Do you love me enough to let me play a deep cut or do you want to just keep hearing hit after hit?” after playing crowd favorites like “Nancy From Now On”, “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)”, and continued with “When the God of Love Returns There’ll be Hell to Pay”.
Evidently, Tillman often alludes to the Christian Bible to critique religion and human nature. It is important to note that he was raised by very religious parents in an Evangelical Christian home, but is very critical of his own faith and challenges the God he may or may not believe in: “When the god of love returns / There’ll be hell to pay / Though the world may be out of excuses / I know just what I would say / Let the seven trumpets sound / As a locust sky grows dark / But first let’s take you on a quick tour of your creation’s handiwork.” Because of the sarcastic and ironic nature of his persona and lyrics, it is hard to discern what his actual beliefs are. Regardless, his honesty about a sensitive topic much larger than himself is what attracts his audience of outsiders who dare ask the same questions and look to his music as a form of their own spiritual text.
The set ended with “Holy Shit,” a love ballad written on his wedding day. With a soaring crescendo and choral harmony, the closing song did not fall flat while the crowd filed out of the aisles and into the night with the melody still ringing in their ears.
The root of Father John Misty’s music is not for everyone, but we can all appreciate a handsome crooner with a great beard on a rainy, Wednesday night. Whether dismissed as an overly introspective and brooding indie-rock artist, or idolized as a profound songbird of our time, Father John Misty sure knows how to put on a show.