Alice Mortimer on why American star Father John Misty is giving folk in 2016 a completely new – and satirical – feel
Ex-Fleet Fox Josh Tillman, or Father John Misty as he’s been known since album Fear Fun, is finally bringing romantic realism into modern folk – something the genre has been lacking due to its often vapid approach to the theme of love. This of course, in an industry where cliché isn’t exactly praised by critics.
Folk has arguably been a dying genre in recent times, which could be attributed to genre-stagnation and a ‘samey-ness’ held by artists who wish to appeal to wider audiences.
Father John Misty however is real, niche and completely critical about romance, resulting in the satirical folk singer seemingly achieving the impossible. In short, Tillman has made folk interesting.
Love – “minus the bullsh*t”
With his FJM debut Fear Fun, Tillman tripped out with freak-folk, writing on topics of sex, drugs and rather bleakly, death. Covering such a thematic spectrum, we were to wonder where Misty would take things next.
Love. That’s where. But “minus the bullsh*t”.
With even more satire than his first, Tillman’s sophomore effort as Father John Misty beautifully infuses psychedelic-folk and orchestral epicness, creating a sound which in most tracks on new record I Love You, Honeybear, climaxes into show-stopping, impassioned perfection.
At first glance, it all appears to be richly romantic, but behind is a backdrop of caustic meaning. ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, the first and title track on the album, is completely ironic, with reference to saccharine couples too caught up in their own love (“Everything is doomed and nothing will be spared, but I love you, honeybear”).
Lyrically comparable to Morrissey, Tillman simultaneously combines solemnity, wit and black hilarity with the album’s sickly sweet composition (“Of the few main things I hate about her, one’s her petty, vogue ideas, someone’s been told too many times they’re beyond their years” – ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment’).
Unlike many other contenders in the folk world, Misty has his satirical style as a USP.
No hackneyed extras
Synth is thrown in spontaneously with contemporary track ‘True Affection’, something we never really saw with popular folk artists such as Mumford & Sons, who simply tired listeners out with 12-track compilations of aggressive banjo strumming, until eventually losing their style in favour of ‘safer’ chart rock.
It isn’t really enough to simply be a ‘folk’ artist anymore on the modern music scene. The majestically melancholic Bon Iver ended up collaborating with Kanye West, while talented folk singers such as Johnny Flynn just never made it out onto a popular platform.
Oxford quartet Stornoway perfected traditional folk notably well, although we can see why chart success was never really on the cards when third studio album Bonxie (2015) simply echoed the sound of records on and two.
But Tillman as Misty hasn’t needed hackneyed extras such as excessively-catchy whistling (Noah and the Whale), nor overly simple chord progressions as demonstrated in Beirut tracks. Instead, Tillman has managed to maintain his orchestral-folk sound for a second album, adapting his lyrical cynicism to love, which most likely has allowed folk fans to better relate to his music than those artists who write about the topic in much more of a ‘black and white’ manner.
Breathing life into the genre
And people are loving it. I Love You, Honeybear peaked in the Top 20 of the Billboard album chart in 2015; not bad for a strikingly niche singer whose lyrical craftsmanship includes the likes of “I wanna take you in the kitchen, lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”. This is in comparison to Fear Fun’s peak at 123rd in 2012.
Father John Misty was also nominated alongside pop royalty such as Drake and Justin Bieber for International Male Solo Artist in the 2016 Brit awards – always an impossible win against such popular genres, but probably the furthest a modern folk singer has ever ventured in mainstream success.
This is not to say folk was dead before Father John, but Misty has definitely given it a little more charisma.
[Main image: Anthony Longstaff]
Father John Misty plays Latitude Festival in Southwold in July.