THE ELDER TILLMAN balances his pride with disappointment. The father to Josh (as in solo artist J. Tillman, as in the beat behind Fleet Foxes) and younger son, Zach, raised his boys among the flock, instruments in hand. "We grew up constantly surrounded by music," Zach Tillman reminisces about a childhood with dad on the guitar, mom's soprano voice, and growing up under the long shadow of the cross, to the point that even the airwaves were taboo: "We listened to a lot of modern rock radio underneath the sheets with a flashlight."
This upbringing segued naturally into Zach's teen years, where he devoured parentally approved recordings under the Tooth & Nail banner, until recordings from Roadside Monument and Joe Christmas changed things. "I remember distinctly thinking, 'I don't think this is actually Christian, because it's really good.'" Tillman explains. "I know it's on Tooth & Nail, but I think that somebody's pulling a fast one here."
From there, the musically inclined Zach took his own path, bouncing around various bands until finally settling in with the somewhat solo vessel known as Pearly Gate Music. With a wondrously soulful voice, bellowing with a restrained grace, Pearly Gate Music's self-titled LP debut (out this month on Barsuk) echoes a past spent in the pews, but lacks all heavy-handed proselytizing and ex-religious breakup issues.
Sounding like he spent a heartbreak winter in the same sadness cabin as Bon Iver, Tillman's secularized spiritual music can topple weak-kneed listeners with little more than the emotional heft that he wields. The intimate gloom of opener "Golden Funeral" makes up for what it lacks in volume with a soft vulnerability, a feeling that translates effortlessly to the love-smitten "Navy Blues," and the lone voice that hovers above the sparse "If I Was a River" (his Daddy Wrote You Letters tour EP offers an equally haunting live version of the song).
With oblique lyrics that veer toward cryptic, and a bio that focuses more on a fictionalized conversation about what Stephen Malkmus would think of the recording ("this stuff is terrible"), the younger Tillman reveals very little personal details over the course of a recording that feels incredibly exposed. Part of this just might be the stoic Tillman way, and there is also the issue of an interview with AOL's Spinner site, where Tillman joyfully fed the disinterested writer a series of fantastic lies that were cemented as truths once posted online. Despite his fictitious claim that a house fire left him "technically dead" for three minutes and bestowed him with the ability to instantaneously comprehend sheet music, other publications (namely the respectable British daily, the Guardian) ran these claims as if they were the gospel.
"If someone from the Guardian called me up and asked, I would have been happy to say, 'Yes. Fuck spinner.com; it's AOL corporate garbage. No one who is really concerned about music gets their information from spinner.com.' But they didn't."
Thankfully Tillman is one to clot the emotional hemorrhaging before it reveals too much, and he understands that the veiled lyrics of Pearly Gate Music will be interpreted differently—both during interviews and onstage—by all. This extends from his homoerotic night on the town with the son of God in "Oh, What a Time!" ("We'll go out for some drinks/You'll say, 'Zach what do you think of these?'/And I'll say, 'Jesus Christ, put those fucking things away/I'm trying to eat'"), to the infinitely sadder lover's lament of "I Woke Up." How you decipher Pearly Gate Music's message will vary upon listener, or as Tillman explains, "If they want to believe that I'm this really sentimental weepy dude, that's fine."