Father John Misty live at the Opera House

In Music

Father John Misty’s recent album, I Love You, Honeybear, has enjoyed no shortage of critical acclaim. Having spun the record many times this year – and ventured further to sample many interviews and live performances – it’s not hard to see why.

Josh Tillman, the man behind the Father John Misty persona, is an intriguing individual. While often cast as dashingly handsome, witty and oozing charm, Tillman also possesses a dark streak that manifests in cynicism, self-deprecation and occasional ruthlessness. He makes for a complex character, caught between egoism and self-awareness, redemption and re-offense. It is Tillman’s foremost talent as a songwriter that so aptly depicts these warring and often contradictory dimensions, while his ironic, deadpan delivery means his songs often eschew easy interpretation.

In an interview with The Independent, Tillman says he sought to write about love “without all the bullshit, the clichés, the sentimentality. Because in my experience it’s exhilarating, but also frequently torturous.” In this he more than succeeds. The album is an honest and multi-faceted meditation on love, which at various points expresses fear of intimacy and a distaste for starry-eyed romanticism, offset by moments of authentic tenderness.

At times, Tillman shows a side of himself that is genuinely unlikeable, as in the track The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt; a ruthless and embittered portrait of a vapid ex-lover that concludes with Tillman channelling his frustration through his lover’s request for erotic asphyxiation. The darkness of the material is somewhat softened by Tillman’s delivery and serene instrumentation, but there is no denying that this is fairly bleak stuff.

What makes the album work, however, is balance. The protagonist is ultimately redeemed through moments of genuine vulnerability and Tillman’s real-life surrender to love. The album’s closer, I Went To The Store One Day, recounts Tillman’s first encounter with his future wife, Emma, which triggers a vision of the couple happily living out the remainder of their days – the power of which negates the worst of his sneering cynicism and character flaws.

Tillman has often stated how difficult it was for him to record the album. In an interview for Grantland he stated that even during rehearsal he has “a hard time getting through the songs.” His natural instinct is to avoid vulnerability, having previously admitted he “struggle(s) with contempt for people and (keeps) them at arm’s length by making them laugh.”

One can imagine, then, how difficult it must be to playing larger festival shows in front of thousands of adoring, screaming, fawning fans.

I witnessed this story play out in real time at the Sydney Opera House a few nights ago. From the live bootlegs I’d witnessed, I was expecting a stripped-back acoustic affair. Imagine my surprise then when Tillman burst forth backed by a five-piece band, belting out a highly amplified and extroverted rendition of I Love You, Honeybear’s title track in which he fell dramatically to his knees no less than eight times in five minutes.

For over an hour, Tillman strutted confidently across the stage, hands waving, hips gyrating, in a performance that was more reminiscent of the theatrics of Prince than the subdued introspection of Sufjan Stevens. The crowd ate it up; they were sold long before the music had begun. In the lulls between songs they yelled inanities and professions of love, along with the occasional marriage proposal or request to birth his offspring. Tillman – who has been vocal about his distaste for heckling – grit his teeth while trying to minimise the disruption. Even for a master of deadpan, his banter seemed more than a little deflated.

The most beautiful representation of the evening came during the performance of the (faux?) maudlin piano-ballad Bored In The USA, in which Tillman laments the spiritual void of consumerist America. Mid-way through the soliloquy, a laugh track appears, brutally deflating not only the American dream, but also the petty, vapid concerns of middle America. During the live performance, the audience, so enraptured, went as far as to attempt to clap along to the laugh track – the perfect symbol of this absurd and uncomfortable performance.

On this particular evening, the vulnerability that so attracted me to Father John Misty was nowhere to be seen. Hiding behind bravado, Tillman steamrolled the nuance, ambiguity and restraint of I Love You, Honeybear with theatrics that came across as contrived and distant. Perhaps such a response is academic given the circumstances: That Tillman’s most painful and personal confessions have been converted into a product for mass consumption – and a rather successful one at that – is surely anathema to his distaste for consumerism.

The crowd that evening evidently disagreed with me in the strongest possible sense: a number of my friends hailed the show as the best live performance of 2015, or even of their lives. Let us agree to disagree.

Should Father John Misty ever pledge a stripped back performance, I will happily attend, but this was a confused festival set I could have lived without.

This piece was originally published at The Big Smoke.

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