Father John Misty: Metamodernism’s Epic Poet

“Did you see what I was doing there? I do it a lot. I avoid talking about myself honestly by making grand, incoherent, reductionist commentary rooted in my pretty dim and generally uniformed view of humanity.”

Well, if you know Father John Misty, aka. Josh Tillman, you can easily imagine the mix of sincerity and scorn that this words bear beneath their surface. Just as soon as you feel as if you have pierced the thick shield of irony under which the singer-songwriter loves to hide, then the barrier comes up again, misleading his true intentions. But this time, he promises, it is different.

The need for a change in life (and love) that brought the formerly Seattle-based musician to move to sunny L.A. and write a coming-of-age, ironic-driven biographical record is way past behind; now Josh Tillman is a married man singing about finding true love and monogamously settling down. This didn’t prevent him, though, from filling every inch of his new album with wry, iconoclastic commentary on human relationships and lifestyle.

Born in 1981, Josh Tillman is still in time to be a Millennial, thus perfectly embodying the metamodern zeitgeist of his generation.

But what is metamodernism?

As Luke Turner explains in his Brief Introduction to Metamodernism, this new cultural wave can be explained as “a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere at the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.”

That being so, if metamodernism had to have a representative songwriter, who could better fit to the description than Father John Misty?

But let’s start from the beginning.

Before Father John Misty, Josh Tillman had already released seven deeply-intimate-folk albums under its own name and spent some time sitting behind Fleet Foxes’ drum kit, just at the height of their career. None of these experiences, though, was fulfilling enough to keep the musician satisfied, and 2011 saw him flee from his job, his girlfriend and his city, loading a van and drive all the way to California. The result of this road trip was the birth of Father John Misty, a persona that allowed Tillman a brand new start as a singer-songwriter and a giant step into the metamodern paradigm. Since the very beginning, the boundaries between fiction, autofiction and autobiography seemed extremely loose in his new songs. Despite stating that choosing a new name only served the purpose to put some distance between his older records and this new experience, having an alter-ego allowed the musician to dig deep within himself and try to define who he were or, at least, he wanted to be. One and the same, there is no Father John Misty without Josh Tillman, and no Tillman without all of Misty’s excesses and flaws.

Fear Fun, the first release under the new moniker, rather than a concept album, can be considered as a long narrative still pretty much swayed by postmodern meta-fictional irony. But it isn’t hard to get a glimpse on the metamodern twist that is already occurring. For instance, Tillman, who admittedly wanted to become a writer in his twenties, published as the liner notes of the record his novel Mostly Hypothetical Mountains (a pure postmodern composition), only to blatantly make fun of all the people who decide to write a coming-of-age novel as a self-help therapy in one of the album’s songs, unsurprisingly titled “I’m Writing a Novel.”

Doing something while critiquing it at the same time is the foundation of this first Father John Misty’s effort. Creating two or more different narratives which, despite apparently excluding each other, can exist at the same moment is the foundation of metamodernism.

In addition to this, the whole album and novel are permeated by a peculiar sense of spirituality and religion. Tillman grew up in a Christian-to-the-bone environment, resulting in a recurrent quoting biblical stories and characters. In Fear Fun, however, not only the Christian reference is stripped of its religious meaning and brought at a human level — as the lyrics to “Everyman Needs a Companion,” in which John the Baptist and Jesus Christ talk about Mary “like a couple of boys/with nothing to lose/but too scared to try,” can prove — but it coexists with Shamanism and a personal spirituality. Though these three sacred experiences are usually considered as different devotional polarities, here are taken as simply different path leading to the same place, no matter the journey in between, in a metamodern way.

Even when it comes to pointing the finger at social and political issues, Father John Misty’s irony isn’t lost. And there is no apathy in his humor, every laughter is aimed to strike a chord that could make the listener reflect on what is going on in his life and civilisation. This matter is precisely the joining link between Fear Fun and its follower, I Love You, Honeybear. Songs like “Now I’ve Learned to Love the War” from the former, or “Bored in the USA” from the latter, share the same sense of bittersweet, cynical yet sincere commentary on current events. Both nonchalant and engaged, the singer-songwriter knows to be at the same time the one addressing the issue and a part of it, with its behaviour and its privileged, white male Millennial point of view.

With this second album, though, the Josh Tillman approach has undergone a further change. Announced as a love-songs record, inspired by meeting his wife and muse Emma, a new layer of sincerity filters through the thick blanket of irony. And if the metamodern can be defined as “constituted by the tension, no, the double-bind, of a modern desire for sense and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all,” as Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker state in their Notes on Metamodernism, then Father John Misty’s sophomore is pure metamodernism.

No postmodern novel accompanied the release, this time. With the protective shield of fiction put down by presenting the album as a personal recollection of facts and feelings, the separation between the songwriter Josh Tillman and the Father John Misty persona blurred into an indistinguishable act, irony and sincerity swinging wildly within the 11 tracks of the record.

“I was trying to create this ‘just kidding!’ bluster, trying to make this barter with myself, like, ‘I’ll let you be this exposed if you let me cloak these songs in giant, deranged, impenetrable Disney-orchestra arrangements,’” the musician naïvely came out to Pitchfork. “I Went to the Store One Day,” the closing track of the album, is a case in point. Under a dramatic, Hollywoodian arrangement, Tillman/Misty sings about the first year of his love story, repeatedly oscillating between a heartfelt and moving feeling of love and the need to sarcastically break the intensity of the emotion as a self-defence, creating a metamodern metaxis, a “both/neither” dynamic, an in-between of two different and opposite feelings that coexist instead of cancelling out each other.

“Love, and songs for that matter, knows things about you way before you do. For example… That as loathe as you are to admit it, your personale truth (pluralistic, I know) is often found in your contradictions, and you suspect a real sense of identity can survive there polarities,” Tilmann writes in the bio he penned as a PR for the album. Once again is the textual apparatus that sheds some light on the songwriter true intentions — this time with a biographical note and a listening guide shaped as a series of recipes or exercises to get to the core experience behind every song. In these pages you can find a man upset for finding out that Romantic love is exactly like the clichés used to described it, its fear of not being different (or better) than anyone else at it and the necessity to make fun of this occurrence, not without some self-deprecation.

“Anytime you say the word ‘myself’ pronounce it ‘Myslef’ and mentally capitalize it as you would a proper noun or name. Do this until ‘Myslef’ begins to feel like some person other than yourself. Practice this as a way to make sense of the ways that the shit you’re pulling lately just doesn’t feel like you’re quite being yourslef,” Tillman suggests as a listening instruction for “Strange Encounter,” one of the most genuine songs in the album. That is what Vermeulen and van den Akker call “Romantic Irony,” a Utopia reimagined incorporating both hope and irony into someone’s own work.

And in the many, contrasting reactions that you will have each and every time you’ll give ear to the record — from amazement to annoyance, from empathy to feeling duped —you won’t but agree with the two philosophers when claiming that “indeed, that is the ‘destiny’ of the metamodern wo/man: to pursue a horizon that is forever receding.”

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