Father John Misty review – great songs, shame about the trolling

Hammersmith Apollo, London
Josh Tillman rolls out his lush songs with a knowing razzmatazz, only slightly tainted by his offstage antics

If you have ever concluded that your precious life was being played out in an absurdist dystopia, you are not alone. American folk-rock musician Father John Misty’s third album, Pure Comedy, released last April, is all about us “demented monkeys” who live in a system only “a madman would conceive”.

There are scraps of comfort, though, declared and implied. There is sweet, sweet music. Live and on record, Misty’s voice is clear and true, his tunes nagging and lush. “Each other’s all we’ve got,” runs the last line of the title track, delivered tonight, the second of two nights at this storied London venue, with a kind of offhand emphasis, to profuse cheers.

The tour of this complicated album is full of razzmatazz and balm: strings, brass and pedal steel accompany Misty’s large band. Pianist Jon Titterington plays it tinkly or honky-tonk by turns on songs such as Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow, while pedal-steel player David Vandervelde bumps up the country quotient. The album’s misanthropic, Hieronymous Bosch-like cover art is writ large on the backdrop; you can also buy leggings of it from the merch stand. Glitter cannons are deployed early in the set. One goes off after a massive crescendo on Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution, prompting Misty to ponder an unfinished joke about blowing one’s load too early.

Misty – Josh Tillman to the immigration authorities – has always dripped self-awareness. Previous tours have contained between-song analyses of how performances work. On these bigger stages, however, Misty talks less and hams it up even more, recalling Jarvis Cocker’s deconstructions of how a transported, hip-swivelling lead singer should behave. (“I wanted to be authentically bogus rather than bogusly authentic,” Tillman told the New Yorker earlier this year.) The original vision for this tour involved “therapist puppets” and “giant banana-peel costumes” and the band in an orchestra pit.

Father John Misty at the Hammersmith Apollo.
Father John Misty at the Hammersmith Apollo. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

You don’t really leave feeling particularly short-changed, though, after a two-hour run through the highlights of Misty’s three albums. The love songs from his breakthrough record, I Love You, Honeybear (2015) flourish under these generous arrangements. When You’re Smiling and Astride Me is full of ecstatic “oh”s, and Tillman falls to his knees at the song’s close, skewered by the meaning of love: to “truly see and be seen”.

The only downside here is that the emotional, overthinking 21st-century bard strutting and fretting his two hours on the stage can be a complex, Marmitey character off it. A story broke on the day of this gig about a Misty Facebook post, subsequently deleted, disavowing the modern menace of music bloggers. It was widely interpreted as a mischievous dig at Taylor Swift, currently under fire after her lawyers issued a writ to a minor music blogger who criticised her failure to disown the far-right leaning section of her fanbase.

Misty has form here, having imagined “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift”, on Total Entertainment Forever, a song about our addiction to tech. Calling out pop stars for their heavy-handed tactics is, clearly, fair game. But you could also argue that persistently trolling Swift is also a questionable bloodsport, indulged in by a certain kind of entitled male star; the kind that imperils the sympathy his compassion and wit have earned him.

Watch the video for Father John Misty’s Things it Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution.


Kitty Empire

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