TNot long ago, Josh Tillman — best known by his stage name Father John Misty — was almost as famous for his bizarre social media antics as he was for his wry, sardonic folk-rock records. The following year saw the release of his second breakout album, 2015 I love you honey bearTillman filled his popular Instagram account with all sorts of idiosyncratic images: hundreds of stills from the virtual world of Second Life, dozens of stock photos of men taking selfies, iPhone videos of sunsets, and a whole bunch of himself just on his phone stare.
His Twitter presence was just as trollishly absurd. In June 2016, he claimed he was responsible for stealing a crystal from an organic juice bar in Los Angeles. He then released a series of tongue-in-cheek songs claiming to be unused Prius jingles, available directly on social media, turned down promos for the streaming service Pandora, and his own “official lyrics” for the Netflix theme tune house of cards. When President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, Father John Misty tweeted an upbeat song about the incident the next day.
Always hungry for new content, the online pop culture news economy has been eating it up. pitchfork Father John put Misty at the top of their list of “Top 30 Artists You Need to Follow on Social Media,” writing, “On the one hand, @fatherjohnmisty is an extension of Tillman’s mission to bring a smug modern take on faded rock ‘n ‘ roll archetypes; on the other hand, it’s a great outlet for an incorrigible prankster who gets away with it when people don’t get it.” It’s true that even many of his most devoted fans seemed stunned by the whole performance. Typical comments were: “I don’t understand this side” and “stop and live brother, trust me.”
Tillman may have taken that advice to heart. In September 2016, he deleted his Twitter and Instagram accounts for no reason, briefly switched back to Twitter, and then resigned in August 2017. These days, his social media presence has returned in a much more conventional form, full of ornate but boring promotional materials. It appears his social media has been largely run by his record label or his management’s social media team for the past five years.
But at least he still spoke to the press for some time. The release of 2017 Pure comedy was accompanied by a media hype that profiled him everywhere Rolling Stone to The New Yorker. He gave a great interview, he knew it and seemed to enjoy it at the time. “I love the exhilaration of feeling a quote come out of your mouth,” he said in one New York Times Profile. “The words just taste better.” He even sang about it. “Those LA phonies and their bullshit bands / That sounds like dollar signs and Amy Grant,” he purred Pure comedy‘s 13-minute epic Let go of LA “That’s the pull quote from my last cover song called ‘The Oldest Man in Folk Rock Speaks.'” Not long after, folk rock’s oldest man stopped public speaking altogether. He has declined to give interviews since 2018, either to promote this year’s God’s favorite customer or the coming Chloë and the next 20th century.
If fans who attended his last live show were hoping he could offer a deeper dive into those records, they left disappointed. When he played at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall last month, he was unusually taciturn for someone who once punctuated his live shows with frequent snippets of stand-up comedy. One of his few utterances during the show alluded to his age — Tillman turned 40 last May and has since shaved his head and trimmed his beard short, an appearance that puts him somewhere between a medieval monk and a tech CEO placed. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said as he picked up the mic for the first time. “I’m old now. That’s the big reveal.”
Birthdays seem to be important to Tillman. It was a decade ago, just before he turned 30, that he headed to Big Sur with a bag of magic mushrooms to ponder his next move. At the time, he was just the former drummer for the Fleet Foxes, who had released eight unannounced solo albums under the J Tillman moniker. One day, while wandering through the wilderness and feeling the effects of the psilocybin, he stripped naked and decided it was time to reinvent himself. Father John Misty was born and discharged fear fun, his first record under the new name on April 30, 2012, three days before his 31st birthday.
It seems like entering his fifth decade has had a similarly transformative effect on Tillman. Mainly, Chloë and the next 20th century is more serious and less cynical than the first three Misty records, and the jokes become increasingly rare. Musically, it bears the distinct influence of the Beatles, particularly the lullaby “(Everything But) Her Love” and the carnivalesque “Q4.” In Beatles terms, Misty was once a rebellious, sharp-tongued John Lennon guy, while now seemingly embracing his inner Paul McCartney. On the closing track “The Next 20th Century,” lyrically the most conventional Father John Misty track on the album, he lays out his faith in music – and gives one reason why he likes to let his songs do the talking: “Now it always will worse / stay so eerily the same,” he sings. “I don’t know about you / but I’ll take the love songs / and give you the future in return.”
The last time I interviewed Tillman was in a London hotel room in February 2017. I asked him how he found life without the endless distractions of Twitter and Instagram. “It goes on!” he said. “That’s good. I check Twitter occasionally, but I found that when I was there, the anger that you see there felt normal. I was absorbed in it, used to the anger. Looking at it now, I’m just like, ‘Why are you so angry?’”
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The conversation then turned to Neil Postman’s 1985 book amuse us to death in which the media theorist argues that the public sphere in the modern world is kept docile and not controlled by state repression as George Orwell foresaw 1984, but rather as Aldous Huxley predicted Beautiful new world: by keeping the populace distracted and addicted to endless entertainment.
“[Postman] says that when the transcontinental telegraph was invented, someone resisted and said, “Well, what are we really going to learn?” That the princess has whooping cough? Who needs to know?’” Tillman explained. “It’s sort of the same now. If you look at the rage that’s online now, it’s because every day people have invited a ton of different things into their lives that they don’t need to know, be it a new Father John Misty song and they’re like, “Who the f*** is that a **hole? Why won’t he leave me alone?’ Because you invited a million voices into your life every day!”
His tone turned incredulous as he described the insane routine that so many of us subject our fragile minds to, the background roar that makes it impossible to hear yourself think. “The first thing you do in the morning is invite into your real life a million ideas that have nothing to do with your real life, and you’ve made those things that have nothing to do with you the substance of your life “, he said . “It’s a problem. It makes people angry and makes them feel isolated, but it’s nobody’s fault but themselves.”
Perhaps the question shouldn’t be, then, why did Father John Misty decide to keep his mouth shut? It should be: Why don’t we have others?
Chloë and the Next 20th Century is out April 8th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/father-john-misty-new-album-2022-b2033180.html Father John Misty: How the Online Man Disappeared in Folk Rock