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Father John Misty: “Chloë and the Next 20th Century” Tour

Josh Tillman has been in the music industry for nearly 20 years and counting, under various titles, but none as prominent as Father John Misty. Credited as a songwriter and producer for world-renowned artists like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Kid Cudi, and Post Malone, one would think his name would be more widely known. 

At 21 years old, Tillman dropped out of Nyack College in New York and moved to Seattle to pursue music under the name J. Tillman. He released a grand total of eight albums under his abbreviated name, none of which seemed to contribute to the success he sees today. Speaking on his older music, it seems he doesn’t believe his songs came from an authentic place, but rather, it was a sad attempt at being what he calls a ‘singer-songwriter archetype.’ 2008 marked the year he somewhat abandoned his solo endeavors to join the Seattle-based indie-folk band Fleet Foxes as their touring drummer, following the release of their self-titled debut album. After four years and two world tours, Tillman departed from the band and moved to Los Angeles. During his LA-bound journey to self-discovery, it occurred to him that his between-song banter was better received than his actual music, leading him into a more comedy-based approach to writing. Weirdly enough, his dissatisfaction with music led to a brief venture into novel writing, where he finally recognized his own voice in his words, inspiring him to rebrand himself in music. Alas, at age 31, Father John Misty, a clever play on his conservatively religious upbringing, was born. 

10 years later, Father John Misty is decorated with five critically acclaimed studio albums, yet his public persona remains a mystery. Misty walks somewhere between the lines of cynical, pessimistic insincerity, and intimate authenticism. His composure begs the question of if he has found the key to self-preservation in a world drowned by media consumption and journalistic criticism. Every bit of skepticism surrounding him is a result of his own intentions. Wary journalists are well aware of his media pranks and vague statements, and he seems to get a thrill from doing what is least expected of him, including a cover of Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s Blank Space (in the style of The Velvet Underground). While many view his antics as perhaps a desperate vie for attention, the truth of the matter is that Tillman’s reasons are much simpler than observers could imagine – his amusement comes from people missing the point as they reach aimlessly for a deeper meaning. 

Tillman’s public persona (or lack thereof) makes it incredibly difficult to know what to expect from his live performances. Without a deep dive into his tours, the surface of media coverage recalls only some of what he deems to be his worst moments as a performer: countless articles reporting his concert following Donald Trump’s 2016 election, at which he rambled endlessly, self-described as “…having a good cry onstage that I should have had in the shower.” So, in his best moments, what is a Father John Misty concert really like?

At first glance, Tillman is just another 41-year-old white guy with an acoustic guitar, but as soon as the music starts, any preconceived notions regarding his appearance vanish, and it is near impossible not to be drawn in by his beautifully haunting voice and psychedelic instrumentals. Playing a different setlist at every show, he opens his Boston concert at Leader Bank Pavilion with “I Love You, Honeybear, the title track of his sophomore album that reflects on his marriage. I Love You, Honeybear is a cathartic collection of songs written about Tillman’s disillusionment in what he once believed love was: “My wife and I fell in love over talking about how love was bullsh*t.” His performance can only be described as a catharsis. Tillman hypnotizes his crowd in a way rarely seen in today’s concert culture. In an increasingly materialistic world, every moment is digitally recorded, in an attempt to preserve memories, as if we no longer possess the ability to remember things clearly. Every concert in the past decade has been a kaleidoscope of cell phone screens, and in more recent years, an obnoxious chorus of off-key screams from the audience, and yet, this culture was nowhere to be seen at Father John Misty’s show. In a venue of almost five thousand people, only a handful could be seen holding up their phones to take videos, and those who did sing along to Misty’s music did so in a quiet manner, so as not to disrupt or disturb his holy performance and sacred preachings. 

Perhaps Misty’s fans learned a thing or two from the second track on his setlist, “Total Entertainment Forever,” a ballad dedicated to the dystopian reality of the digital age. Few concerts in this century have come even close to creating the feeling and environment that Tillman has so effortlessly mastered. More popular artists, spanning from Billie Eilish to Florence + the Machine, have been praised (mostly by older generations) for asking that their audiences put their phones away, but this request did not need to be made by Tillman. It’s a very impressive thing, to be so enthralling as a performer that everyone in the room can do nothing but be fully present in the moment. Tillman doesn’t present a show with dancers, intricate visuals, or fancy light tricks; he stands before his audience, knowing that performance, as a concept, can never be completely authentic. He accepts this fact gracefully and uses it to his advantage. 

The ever-present cynicism in his lyrics grants his audience the ability to just be. The consequences of the human condition are inescapable, and Tillman’s acceptance of this brings comfort to anyone willing to listen. Tillman’s most recent album, Chloë and the Next 20th Century is the highlight of his tour. Straying away from personal anecdotes, he brings us back to the Golden Age of Hollywood; stories of absurdity and luscious instrumentals fill the space, and Tillman offers a performance of subtle, swaying dance moves as the brass and string sections of his band swell. In recent years, the music industry has seen a wide array of artists putting a modern spin on nostalgic pop, ranging from disco to house music, but none have been so bold as to take their audience back nearly an entire century in the way Tillman has. None of this steers Tillman away from his classic themes of culture, love, sex, and death though. If one were to keep track, the album concludes with the deaths of six different characters, yet it does not hold the same sadness as its predecessors. Instead, listeners can only describe the stories as dream-like; we are given few names or significant details, and the deaths of the various characters are not brought with grief, but rather, Tillman presents a strange sort of charm and humor in his recounts. 

The only death that brings genuine sadness is that of a cat named Mr. Blue, who Tillman believes could have saved a failing relationship if he had held on a little longer. Before he introduced the song Goodbye Mr. Blue, he asked his audience if anyone has recently lost a pet, and he dedicated the song to a fan’s beloved goat, Joey. This moment was one of the very few instances where Tillman sought to connect with his audience on a more personal level, yet the entire hour and a half set felt intimate as if he was singing to each individual in the room. 

Tillman brings a level of humility to his performance, proving that self-awareness is his biggest attribute. He is self-deprecating, but not to the point of annoyance. Across his many heavy themes, what prevails the most is that Tillman encourages his audience to ask questions of themselves and society as a whole. To introspect is to understand Tillman’s purpose as an artist, and once that barrier is broken down, his audience feels seen. Maybe we will never truly understand ourselves, but Tillman does make a remarkable effort, and in doing so, he has found his voice. “It can be a life’s work to get around to being yourself,” he remarks. 

Father John Misty’s performance may not be a concert where one goes to forget their troubles, but in the new age of embracing our sadness, Tillman excels. 

For anyone wanting to explore Father John Misty’s music, a playlist-recreation of his concert setlist is attached below.

9/23 setlist (Apple Music)

9/23 setlist (Spotify)

Savannah is a sophomore A&E major at Pace from Savannah, GA. She is a singer-songwriter, guitar and piano player, and aspiring music producer. Her favorite artists include Fiona Apple, Father John Misty, Florence + the Machine, Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith, Phoebe Bridgers, The Strokes, PJ Harvey, and Fleet Foxes.
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