Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

O Father, What’s Art Tho?

Searching for meaning at a Father John Misty show

Sometime last week, I was struck by the urge to beat Father John Misty at his own game — namely, taking a light amount of psychedelics and feeling important about our own feelings of importance. I ended up approaching his set at Seattle's Paramount Theatre with a more tender frame of mind, partly because of the tiny bit of mushrooms I had eaten, and partly because watching music is a thing for which I care in a genuinely soft way. Even so, my residual angst about Josh Tillman's Father John Misty character persisted. He’s an icon who critiques iconography for a living; he’s an atheist’s impossible god. I went in with good intentions, but the red flags of skepticism flapped loudly in my mind.

Microdosing at a show by indie rock’s most vocal microdoser might or might not be a good idea. In my case, the parallel sensations recognized each other for their opulence, but they failed to meet in a higher union of taste. Not that there aren’t qualities I find tasteful within Misty's most recent album, Pure Comedy — there are some moments of grace there, and some lush and satisfying arrangements, both of which came through at the concert. If only the lyrics were in another language, so I could ignore the content and enjoy the phonetic lyricism of Romance syllables rather than diluted cultural analysis mistaken for cleverness.

The show’s musical theatrics were often palatable, sometimes even beautiful. Tillman closed his two-and-a-half-hour set with his rarely performed 13-minute monologue, “Leaving L.A.” “You can choose your own fate here,” he told the crowd. “Which song should I play? Should I play ‘Leaving L.A.’? I don’t usually play it; it’s a bit … much.” A man on the balcony yelled down, asking what the other option was. Tillman laughed and began the song without answering the question.

An emotion snuck up on me toward the end of the song. There's a verse about the time he choked on a watermelon candy as a little boy inside J.C. Penney — a trauma demarcating his first memory of hearing music (“That ‘tell me lies, sweet little white lies’ song”). The moment is fluorescent and morbid, and it gives Misty's adopted classical contention between comedy and tragedy its most compelling look: “That's when I first saw the comedy won't stop for / Even little boys dying in department stores.” The comedy lies in the meaninglessness. I wondered if it was the stakes in that scene — the death of a child — that made his myth-unsheathing mission on Pure Comedy seem less trite, less Fatalism for Dummies, less Aristotle Halloween costume. But ultimately it's just a more tender, less prescriptive source of emotion than his other songs, in which he prefers telling us how to feel about “the comedy of man” using either dry wit (often entertaining) or dry detail (often tiresome). Of course there’s power in the melodrama, but melodrama itself is not a power.

The show itself is artfully produced. It has a story line complete with narrative visuals, which are captivating throughout. Illustrator Ed Steed’s Fabergé-egg-apocalypse people dance above rotating mountains in black and white, giving way to beautiful washes of projected color in a perpetual world-turning. A dual-purpose sun-moon installation hovers above the backdrop, implying the passing of days as the performance goes on. It’s very pretty, and weird, and dark during the right stories while vivid in others. It is a world. The set design led me to ask what Tillman's aggressively spotlit stance among his mild-mannered band and this allegory for Earth is meant to represent. “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” suggests him as a middleman between a God of pious judgment and us humans of violence and folly, and it’s kind of like … does anyone else remember who else was a bearded middleman between God and his people? His name also starts with a J.

But it’s like Michael Randall, leader of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, an Orange County acid manufactory in the late ’60s, said: “It's a modern world, and Jesus didn’t have no acid.” To that point, Father John Misty’s world is a post-(post?)-modern one, and Tillman not only has Jesus and acid, but also Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” to help him create “Magic Mountain,” as well as Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid” for his “Companion,” and Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” to his “Dying” one, and, for J’s sake, “Bored in the USA,” which I don’t think I need to explain.

Despite all these springboards for context, ripe for observation of the perennial subjects of fame, religion, comedy, tragedy, folly, hubris, romance, heartbreak, and death … I was still out here, mildly tripping at a Father John Misty show, looking for some golden keys and only finding copper ones. (Kind of shiny, kind of gold-looking, but a little dull in terms of consciousness-unlocking opportunities.) My mind trailed, and I wondered what Tillman’s biggest onstage insecurities are, and I made a note to be kind to them, psychically. I have a soft spot for the art that I think he’s trying to make — luscious drama, pointed commentary, big, big feelings — but my craving for that trilogy still gnawed at me, unsatisfied.

Tillman has a habit of shifting into sweeping romance while he’s gunning for prophet-like critique. Both come out as performative rather than demonstrative. As I looked through the telescope of his music, eagerly trying to zoom in on a solution of our problems of meaning — I’m right there with you, man! America is fucked and humans are foolish and all these other things that are painfully obvious! — I couldn't find a climax of resolution beyond "my baby" in his catalogue. Tillman questions religions, myths, colonies, power, depression, and his only affirmative, positive solutions are all, Baby, my love, don’t fear — we got each other, or at least, I have your naked body to subsume me. Is that enough? It’s a small answer for such big questions. I don’t want to say the romantic approach is a negative; it’s pop music, right?

“Everything is doomed / And nothing will be spared / But I love you, honeybear” is a respectable resolution for me in a pop context, but I was on mushrooms, so. You’re giving me a string band and radiant visuals and sensational finger-wagging to make your point, dramatically — where my revelation at? It made me think of his songs in a Sinatra kind of way, meaning I feel graced by the theatricality of romance, and I want to exalt all of that because it’s simply fantastic, especially embedded in these kinds of big musical arrangements (though much better represented on the material from 2014's I Love You, Honeybear) — but I respond naturally with a, “Well, yes, but …” It was more stopgap than a needed leap of faith.

Father John Misty's storytelling is of the mode of tell, not show. On “Ballad of the Dying Man,” a meta-critique of a critic at his time of death, Tillman sings, “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath / But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss.” Do we need such an obvious, literal picture of digital addiction to get us to think about the absurdity of it all? It concerns me that his answer is such a blank “yes.” Misty can sometimes feel like a tour guide intent on talking the entire time; your own potential discovery and wonder are held hostage by his prescriptive wit.

During “Leaving L.A.,” someone whooped as Tillman sang the lyric, “I’m beginning to begin to see the end.” It was random; not a whoop-worthy lyric unless you were really, really ready to dip. It made Tillman stumble into a chuckle as he delivered the rest of the verse: “Some 10-verse, chorus-less diatribe / Plays as they all jump ship / ‘I used to like this guy / This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die.’” For the record, Father John Misty does not make me wanna die, though I imagine he'd appreciate such a strong fatal response from his audience. I wished for that intensity, too. Misty's show just made me feel a little more alone in my pursuit for grand meaning in a sold-out theater of people, all here seeking the same entertainment. I was getting Father John Misted, and mist is impossible to grasp, and you also look kind of silly trying to do so.


VMAs 2017