Fear Fun by Father John Misty (Sub Pop Records, 2012. 41 minutes)

Father John Misty is the moniker of singer-songwriter and former Fleet Foxes drummer, Joshua Tillman. After dropping out of college, Tillman moved to Seattle and began recording demos. Damien Jurado, a Seattle-based singer-songwriter, discovered Tillman and took the budding songwriter on tour. Tillman has released 7 full-length albums under the name, J. Tillman. After four years of drumming with Fleet Foxes, Tillman has returned to solo work with Fear Fun.

The Marketing Narrative 

Sometimes, the marketing campaign surrounding a new album dives into the backstory behind said record. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver locked himself in a secluded cabin during a dark, Wisconsin winter to forge For Emma, Forever Ago; Bruce Springsteen wrote The Rising to cope with the September 11 attacks.

With a backstory, the listener finds context for the sonic textures and heartfelt lyrics. The songs become more than songs; they transform into a manifesto.

Why do we care about a backstory? Even more, how should we respond to a backstory when the album itself doesn’t seem to connect?

These questions populate my mind when I listen to Father John Misty’s Fear Fun.

Drug Tripping and Day Tripping 

For this album’s backstory, Joshua Tillman resigned from a successful position as the drummer of Fleet Foxes to focus on a solo career. Already prolific under the moniker, J. Tillman, he began a drug-induced expedition to California hoping to reinvent his sound.

Fear Fun and the new pseudonym, Father John Misty, is the product of his psychedelic journey.

Nothing in this album reinvents the wheel, but Fear Fun marks a change in Tillman’s previous brooding solo work. Tillman’s latest record is energetic and fun, carefully borrowing tones from classic bands such as The Beatles.

High in Hollywood 

Thematically, Tillman accentuates drug references and constantly reminds the listener of his Californian journey.

In the jangled single, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”, Tillman sings,

“Jesus Christ, girl / I laid up for hours in a daze / Retracing the expanse of your American back / With Adderall and weed in my veins”

If the backstory wasn’t clear enough, Tillman ensures, with this song, you get the point: Fear Fun is a drug-induced record.

In terms of location, Tillman provides multiple references to California in the remarkably exciting country-twanged romp, “I’m Writing a Novel”. Tillman ululates,

“Now everywhere I go / In West Hollywood / Is filled with people pretending / They don’t see the actress / And the actress wishing that they could / We could do ayuhuasca / Baby, if I wasn’t holding all these drinks”

Lastly, Tillman goes self-referential with Fear Fun’s closing song, “Everyman Needs a Companion”. In the last verse of the record, Tillman ponders,

“Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones / Couldn’t give a myth / So I had to write my own / I got hung up on religion / Though I know it’s a waste / I never liked the name ‘Joshua’ / And I got tired of ‘J’”

Offering an explanation for changing his moniker to Father John Misty, Tillman expresses honesty regarding his search for meaning. He’s still looking for his name; he’s still searching for a religion. Isn’t a drug-induced trip a physical manifestation of these existential worries?

Non-Druggy Music

Despite the thematic connections to Fear Fun’s drug-induced backstory, I thought the sharp production values and well-crafted compositions offered an argument against this fantastical story on the album’s creation. I credit the Pitchfork Media review for planting this seed of doubt.

Musically, Fear Fun is crisp and melodically rich—not a sound I would expect to emerge from such rampant drug use.

Songs like “Funtimes in Babylon” and “Nancy From Now On” offer complex melodies and unexpected chord progressions. The guitar riff in “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” sweetly settles in a composed and produced manner.

Additionally, Tillman’s smart and witty observations on global sustainability in “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” seem like the product of a well-researched songwriter, not a doped-out individual.

The back-story of Fear Fun holds some tension with the album I hold in my hands. If the story holds true, Fear Fun ought to sound sloppy. Aside from Tillman telling me about his drug use, I see no evidence of it in his sonic textures. Tillman wants us to view him as a 1970s-style rock star a moment’s notice away from his next score.

I don’t think Fear Fun requires such a story to sell records. It is enjoyable on its own.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

What do you think? Does Tillman’s backstory increase or decrease your enjoyment of the record? Is there value in creating a backstory? Do you like Fear Fun?
Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards
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3 Comments Leave a comment
  • RM

    Steven Stills was completely wrecked on cocaine when he created Suite: Judy Blue Eyes nearly single handedly. Although you mentioned it, I think you're forgetting the band Tillman just left, and the level of production quality their records have.

    • Donovan Richards

      All of your points are valid, RM. To be clear, I don't assume any knowledge of Tillman's drug habits. In fact, I don't doubt he wrote some of these songs under the influence. My point in this review is to ponder the necessity of an album's backstory. From the way the lyrics are written, the way the album art is unveiled, and the way Tillman performs, to the press releases surrounding Fear Fun, the listener is lead to believe the album is a product of a drug-induced endeavor. It conjures images of an out-of-control songwriter meandering through the smog of Hollywood. This romanticized vision is almost certainly untrue. Even if Tillman spent most of his recording time on drugs, the visions the story creates in an unnattached listener can easily become more grandiose.

      Whether on drugs or sober, writing an album takes a lot of hard work, long hours in dark spaces, and a ton of time tinkering with the slightest differences in tones.

      In the end, I love Fear Fun because it is an excellent album, not because of its backstory. If the backstory is true. I applaud Tillman for good work. If the backstory is exaggerated to sell more records, I applaud Tillman for good work. That's my point.

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