OH, LOS ANGELES: a curious and beautiful place, where mainstream mythology empties its reactor's water outtake back into the pooling platitudes of everyday living. In the desert warmth, atop ever-shifting tectonic plates, a multitude of bizarre humans exist, many of which I've graciously eavesdropped on since transplanting myself here from Portland. After a few rotations of his latest album, Fear Fun, it's clear that ex-Fleet Foxes drummer and recent Laurel Canyon resident Josh Tillman—or rather, the newly christened Father John Misty—has done much of the same.
"It's not like I drive around LA and abruptly think, 'My God, I'm inspired by this city, I have to get home now and write!'" Tillman told Los Angeles-based music blog Aquarium Drunkard earlier this year. "It is, however, a very strange place, and I have morbid sense of humor, so I'm much like a kid in a candy shop as a writer."
This point is most explicitly illustrated in the waggish, Harry Nilsson-esque song "I'm Writing a Novel." Here, Tillman takes a good jab at himself for a recent foray into fiction—a momentous event that helped move his songwriting in a new direction—with the line "And I'm writing a novel/'cause it's never been done before." He also encounters a cast of characters, including LA canyon rock father Neil Young and a Canadian shaman. Though, most notably, the song closes with the line, "I'll never leave the canyon/'cause I'm surrounded on all sides/by people writing novels and living on amusement rides." It's possible that this all dithers down to some inside joke, but it illustrates that aforementioned intrigue that fuels an artist here.
Additionally, standout track "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" eerily recounts funeral crashing in the famous cemetery that holds Johnny Ramone's body, conjuring the rock 'n' roll ghosts that still haunt Laurel Canyon with its unconstrained guitars, dressed in tones from Young's "Revolution Blues." Lyrically and musically, it conveys sex and death and all of the other things that flood the consciousness during a drive down Sunset Strip.
Fear Fun, as a whole, is nothing if not actualized. It sounds as if Tillman has fully negotiated with his songwriting to the point where he can still write about what he feels, but through different character lenses, thus helping to abolish that navel-gazing pastime to which he refers to as "wound-licking music." While the bulk of Tillman's catalog up to this point errs on the side of dispiriting—fuck, Singing Ax's "Our Beloved Tyrant," is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever—this record exhibits a more jocular demeanor. Even "Funtimes in Babylon" and "Everyman Needs a Companion," the tracks that neatly sandwich the album and most resemble his past style, possess a blitheness rare for a J. Tillman album.
To what this change is owed, we may never truly know. Perhaps it's the Vitamin D overdose (seems too easy), or the freedom of a nom de plume and its various alter egos (though, while Tillman has not offered much clear information, this is something he disputes quite vehemently). If nothing else, there is a detectable sigh of relief here, one that comes after that flailing character barreling down the sidewalk doesn't hold a knife to your back like you imagined he would. In life and Los Angeles, it seems that the little victories are the most important yet.