Will Schube is always still thinking about it.
Is Josh Tillman, also known as Father John Misty, an unrelenting douchebag or simply smarter than the rest of us? This question could have been asked a number of times over the past few years—from the release of his signature cologne line, to his stage persona, to his penchant for taking audience recording devices and shamelessly videoing himself in some skewed comment on consumption (his tour date promotion consists of the following quote : “I’m coming to your town/bring your iPHONE”), it’s clear that there’s some sort of hyper-hyper-awareness at play within his persona. Tillman brought this question to the forefront once again when he popped up on Letterman, accompanied by a 22-person band and a new album announcement.
“Bored in the USA,” the first single from the new record (and the one he performed), isn’t a very good song. It’s hysterical, but it’s not very good. That seems to be beside the point, though. Regarding my first question, I think Misty may just be smarter than the rest of us, or, at the very least, smarter than the average internet user who stumbled upon his music because he used to drum in Fleet Foxes.
Over a slow piano riff, Misty sings (in his breathtakingly dynamic voice), “How many people rise and say/My brain’s so awfully glad to be here for yet another mindless day/Now I’ve got all morning to obsessively accrue/A small nation of meaningful objects/They’ve gotta represent me too.” While the point isn’t pushed across in a particularly subtle manner, he’s going after a certain sort of mindset that is fairly symbiotic with the destruction of typical music consumption. You may think he’s an asshole, but he’s right. Tillman’s Misty persona has always had a capitalistic bent, on “Now I’m Learning To Love The War,” he sings, “Try not to think so much about the truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record.” He follows this with an equally under examined notion: “Try not to become too consumed with what’s a criminal volume of oil, that it takes to paint a portrait…The acrylic, the varnish, aluminum tubes filled with latex, the solvents and dye.” From there, we get a chorus of, “Let’s just call this what it is/The jealous side of mankind’s death wish/When it’s my time to go/Gonna leave behind things that won’t decompose.” The point being, of course, that art is never viewed in this sort of light—art is the sort of thing we’re supposed to be making more of as the world collapses; it’s not another contributing factor to the deterioration of our planet.
“Bored in the USA” would be a bit more effective if the track was as compelling as some of his earlier work (hopefully this is less a sign of him jumping the shark than it is an outwardly political statement—hell-bent on the listener consuming the words and little else), but its message is as scathingly on point as his best work. He sings, “Just a little bored in the USA/Save me White Jesus/Bored in the USA/They gave me a useless education/A subprime loan/A Craftsman home/Keep my prescriptions filled/Now I can’t get off.”
As the latter half of Misty’s chorus begins, a cued laugh track enters the mix, which made for a particularly confusing moment on national TV. This moment may reveal just what Misty’s hoping to accomplish with “Bored in the USA.” The track almost seems made for television, for the sort of stage that accompanies national broadcasting. As Misty’s organ player cued the laugh track, it became increasingly unclear whether the audience was laughing or if this was of Misty’s making; by the time the culprit was discovered, the point had been made: the state of modern America is so broken one can’t help laughing.
Father John Misty’s music is so good because Tillman is able to match a shockingly gorgeous voice with unflinching critiques of modern capitalism, a system of which we are all a part—even if we’re aware of its evils. It’s still unclear what, exactly, Misty’s after with the whole stunt, but it worked because here I am, talking and thinking about it. That’s a feat in and of itself when most 21st century music asks little more of its listeners than assembly line consumption—listen, digest, move on. Father John Misty’s making us stick around just a little bit longer.