Pure Comedy

Father John Misty has reappeared, and if you thought he was acerbic before, buckle up. The honeymoon is over, and the singer takes aim at the world outside his boudoir. The last Misty album was, of course, the wedding album, and although it had some biting moments, it was essentially an ode to living happily ever after. That was two years ago, and perhaps the world hasn’t actually changed all that much, but the American landscape has been recast, to put it kindly, in a less flattering light. Josh Tillman casts his pen towards the way we live today, and the culture we’ve come to inhabit, and he finds very little to like. In the first minutes of the new album, he correctly identifies the root of all our problems in the biology of birth itself. Birth happens at great, possibly deadly, expense to the mother, and that’s just the beginning. The effort and compromise and sacrifice and danger of keeping alive a human infant – an unviable, helpless creature – are the basis of every structure of civilization, for good or for evil. The society that we’ve built, out of biological necessity, essentially to ease the burden of staying alive, is grotesque and absurd, barely redeemed by what we view as the highlights of human achievement. We’ve evolved and learned enough to mitigate most of the problems that plagued our ancestors; we can reasonably expect that our children will live to adulthood now, and we very rarely die of leprosy anymore. Yet the we refuse to let go of prejudices and superstitions formed centuries ago, we cling to traditions and social mores that no longer serve any purpose, we resist the march of progress every step of the way, all much to our own detriment. What do we even have to redeem us, as a species, except possibly our unique capacity to create shared experiences through art? Art gives us a collective experience of empathy and learning, of sharing our beliefs and feelings, the freedom to enjoy a crude music video prominently featuring Donald Trump and Pepe the Frog. In the end, we can admit, with a bitter spit, that each other’s all we’ve got.

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Only Son of the Ladiesman

You wouldn’t immediately imagine it, but this reminds me strongly of early 70’s Elton John. Or, more vaguely, early 70’s albums in general, where stripped down narrative ballads lay hidden in between the amped-up pop hits. Father John Misty is too clever an artists to just write a straightforward narrative ballad – you couldn’t even really call this a narrative, more of a wordy stream of conscious. But the structure and performance call to mind a time when it was possible to get yourself a radio hit singing twelve to thirteen verses about a boat going down on Lake Ontario. This kind of soulful verbosity doesn’t get rewarded nearly as much anymore. I would say that’s a shame, but times change, and you know what? A lot of those long narrative hit songs from the 70’s were crap anyway. I’m not suggesting that this should be a hit. I love it but I don’t want to hear it on the radio. Some songs are meant to be discovered only after you’ve bought the album. Some songs are meant to lie far between the hits, hidden away on the end of Side A, (as if that were still a thing.)

Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow

Father John Misty, a married man now, is not really feeling the bar scene so much anymore. In fact, he’s positively dripping with contempt. Contempt for the old dive bar and all the floozies and scumbags that can be found there. Contempt for the game of trying to impress drunk strangers. Expressed with his usual delightful wordiness and grumpy humor. Someday Joshua Tillman is going to really come into his own as a curmugeony old man. Right now he’s just working up speed, the Father John Misty persona having emerged as a real cultural figure only in the past year or so. Now he’s gone from acclaimed but unknown to playing the love interest in a Lana Del Rey video. But in all seriousness, I believe this man is going to be a cultural colossus, at least in my circles. Especially with the old guard dying off, there’s a need for someone who checks all the boxes, someone with the charisma and the talent and the ability to assume or shed identities as the muse directs.

Best of 2015 II

Part Two. The Songs.

A little extra space for those whose albums didn’t quite make the top cut, or those who didn’t actually release an album. The songs I listened to. A lot. This year.

1. ★ – David Bowie

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Nothing casts a longer shadow Blackstar. Released in November, it inspired the kind of fanfare only new stirrings by David Bowie could attract. Of course we didn’t know that it was meant as the artist’s swan song, a parting gift, a characteristically cryptic goodbye. We just thought it was mighty epic. In a season of electrosynth, it’s almost painful and wrong to receive something of this caliber, as a goodbye no less. We’re not worthy.

 

2. Ex’s & Oh’s – Elle King

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The naughtiest, sexiest pop confection. So inescapable and so catchy, you almost didn’t notice how subversive it was. Elle King is one of a new breed of smart young pop stars, armed with the message that empowerment is fun.

 

3. On the Regular – Shamir

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This Las Vegas-based new talent combines a soulful countertenor, a love for candy colored disco beats and a playful humor to create what critics have called ‘bubblegum hip hop’. If anyone is going to write this generation’s I Will Survive, it’s gonna be this kid. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s zooming along nicely.

 

4. New Americana – Halsey

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Yeah, it’s a self-conscious, Balenciaga-referencing, portrait-of-my-generation anthem that wouldn’t exist without Royals. But Halsey has greater ambitions than riding Lorde’s coattails for a minute on the pop charts. Her debut was a concept album about an apocalyptic near future of her own invention. She has things to say.

 

5. Tongues – Joywave

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This has actually been stuck in my head since the fall of 2014, and I was waiting to see if Joywave’s debut album lived up to the delirium. It does. This is the best of today’s electric indie pop wave.

 

6. The Party Line  – Belle & Sebastian

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Didn’t Belle and Sebastian used to be known for making sleepy folk music? They’ve been at it long enough to have been a punchline in High Fidelity. But this… This you can dance to. I guess this is a band evolving with the times. Tired of being called twee, they take to electropop.

 

7. Black Sun – Death Cab For Cutie

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Welcome to Ben Gibbard’s big divorce album. It would make a bigger impact if every Death Cab record didn’t sound like a breakup album. The romantic mope is what these guys do best.

 

8. Lifted Up (1985) – Passion Pit

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Passion Pit continues the trend for catchy, New Wave influenced indie pop. There’s been a lot of it lately, mostly of the one hit and out variety, and Passion Pit, with a total of three albums, is looking more and more like a keeper.

 

9. Leave a Trace – Chvrches

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This could be a long lost Cyndi Lauper song, it’s that 80’s. And that’s great. Will Lauren Mayberry grow up to be a similarly iconic figure? Too early to tell, but I’ve been watching Chvrches since their debut a few years ago, and it would be nice if I could continue.

 

10. 10,000 Emerald Pools – BØRNS

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Ok, so maybe Garrett Borns, with his pretentious stage name and sensitive-guy hair, is pure hipster bait. Maybe I’m a sucker for that stuff. Maybe this is a pretty great song.

 

11. Paranoia – Max Frost

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Max Frost is now famous enough to merit his own Wikipedia page, but it’s only a paragraph long. So he’s still got a ways to go before he reaches real fame, but it’s when not if, and when he does, you heard it here first.

 

12. Painted – MS MR

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Just when it seemed like Ms Mr wasn’t going to live up to the promise of Hurricane… This isn’t quite as great, but it’s nice to have them back, and it would be nice to have more fanfare about it.

 

13. American Oxygen – Rihanna

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Rihanna is hardly the first person to use a video montage of iconic images superimposed on an American flag to illustrate a basic political point. We get it, MLK would be aghast at the violence and injustice still being dished out upon a mostly black underclass, and the American Dream is big bust for most of us, etc. (And some viewers might find it objectionable that the singer’s nipples are clearly visible throughout.) But I want to take this as a sign that Rih is beginning to mature into a more serious-minded artist. She has the talent and charisma to become the kind of artist people pay attention to when she has something important to say.

 

14. Blank Space – Father John Misty

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Oh, hey, here’s a novelty song. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll curse the heavens for taking Lou Reed, and you’ll thank Glob that at least we have Father John Misty. Oh, and maybe, just maybe, possibly, Taylor Swift is not entirely a vortex on inanity in human form.

The Best of 2015

Part One. The Albums.

The less said about 2015 the better, and 2016 has already established itself as the worst year in all of recorded history. But at least we still have music.

  1. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty

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Mark my words, Father John Misty is going to take his place as one of the most important living artists in the canon. In fact, on the strength of only two albums (at least under that name and persona), he kind of already is. I can’t think of a better songwriter, capable of the most intense romanticism and the darkest sarcasm. A great voice, a sexy look, a charismatic presence, a rock star who hits all the points.

Bored in the U.S.A.

Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)

I Love You, Honeybear

 

2. What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World – The Decemberists

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The Decemberists’ hiatus didn’t last too long, thank goodness. The world needs their brand of hyper-literate musical anachronism. In a culture where erudition often seems to hold no value, it’s pleasing to see the erudite succeed outside the small circle of the NPR crowd. See, Americana can still be a relevant influence!

Make You Better

The Wrong Year

Carolina Low

 

3. Strangers to Ourselves – Modest Mouse

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The hiatus of Modest Mouse was a long one, and hard to take. Promises of new material were made and rescinded. The words ‘long overdue’ were on everyone’s lips. When it finally came, it didn’t disappoint. Modest Mouse are up to their usual weirdness, mixing the catchy with the abrasive.

Lampshades on Fire

The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box

Coyotes

4. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

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It’s been a couple years since songs from Courtney Barnett’s EP began getting play on indie radio, but this full length debut was most people’s first introduction to her music. Now the world is heralding the arrival of a very major talent. As the title of the records suggests, Barnett’s talent is spinning wordy, witty songs out of the mundane, all delivered in a heavily accented deadpan sing-speak reminiscent of Lou Reed, if he had been born a snarky Australian lesbian with bangs.

Pedestrian At Best

Dead Fox

Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party

5. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence and the Machine

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The title of the album refers to the Pacific Ocean, but it could refer to Florence herself; a force of nature. She’s grown into a bona fide Major Artist since her debut, and it seems she’s still gaining momentum, if this third album is any sign. I’ve rarely seen anyone so commanding, and especially someone so young. As a performer, she was born to fill coliseums, yet despite its grandiosity her music retains intimacy.

What Kind of Man

Ship to Wreck

Queen of Peace

 

6. Dodge and Burn – The Dead Weather

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Not even entirely new material, but new to us, and that’s enough. The Dead Weather churned out more material than one record could hold when they were at their most active. This is the overflow, with some new jams thrown in. It certainly doesn’t feel like leftovers. Alison Mosshart remains a goddess of the highest caliber, a love child of the lizard king.

I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)

Be Still

Three Dollar Hat

 

7. I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler – Yacht

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An unfairly under the radar release from socially conscious electro Utopians Yacht. Claire L. Evans is an electropop genius, from her pixie cyborg style to her witty take on the issues of modern life. This is music you can dance to and think about at the same time. And it’s not without the kind of romantic sentiment a classy lady can get behind, either. How Yacht isn’t basking in fame, I have no idea, but I love this record so much I actually paid for it. So.

I Though the Future Would Be Cooler

I Wanna Fuck You Till I’m Dead

War On Women

8. The Fool – Ryn Weaver

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A debut from a new talent I hadn’t even heard of until recently. Ryn Weaver is a singer who broke into my consciousness as an opening act for Billy Idol. So right away you know that she rocks. She also has impressive songwriting ability, a varied palette of influences and a voice that that brings to mind everything from the tremolos of folk singers like Judy Collins, to the breathy sultriness of Lana Del Rey, to the open-throated high notes of Florence Welch herself.

OctaHate

Promises

Pierre

9. Vulnicura – Bjork

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Bjork had been lying low for a while, but now she returns to purge the experience of her separation from Matthew Barney. So, here’s Bjork’s take on the classic genre of Big Divorce Album. As expected it’s a soundscape of emotion, with cryptic lyrics and surreal atmosphere, and of course, support from friends like Antony Hegarty, always on hand to bring a touch of the otherworldly.

Black Lake

Lionsong

Mouth Mantra

10. Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

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Here’s a band that went from near-unknown to everybody’s favorite in a blink of an eye. But you can’t say they don’t deserve it. If it seems like the throughline of rhythm and blues has gotten lost in the last two or three decades, well, it turns out it hasn’t. To call it ‘retro’ would be too obvious; it’s a reminder that roots music will never not be relevant.

Don’t Wanna Fight

Gimme All Your Love

Future People

 

The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.

Joshua Tillman, of course, is the given name of the musician we all know and love as Father John Misty. In this video he does indeed come to his own apartment, and engages in some mildly disturbing and/or erotic bad behavior. That J. Tillman sure is a funny guy! He spent a large part of his ACL set last year mocking the ‘VIP’ guests using the space in front of his stage as a thoroughfare, and he has some words to say about the hipster scene that his beard and skinny pants have gotten him associated with. He dials the snark way, way up here too. The phenomenon of hipster groupies is almost too easy to mock, but this is about as cutting a portrait of a certain kind girl as I’ve ever heard. We’ve all seen you, girl-who-abuses-the-word-‘literally’; you’re annoying.

Nancy From Now On

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This video is #RelationshipGoals. Father John Misty (aka Joshua Tillman) is an intensely charismatic performer and songwriter of rare wit and verbosity. One of the most striking features of his writing is its intimacy; it is, beneath the handy scrim of a somewhat theatrical persona, very deeply personal. Fear Fun, the first Father John Misty album reveals a man finding his voice and artistic vision after years of being an obscure folk singer of not that  much originality (according to his own perspective on his progress.) The second album begins with the title I Love You, Honeybear, and includes tracks with names like The Ideal Husband, True Affection and When You’re Smiling and Astride Me. As you might have surmised, Josh Tillman got married, and his songs have turned to mapping the path of his relationship with his wife. She is the woman in the video. She’s gone from being the stranger in the liqueur store, to the dominatrix in the hotel, to the Honeybear bride who inspired a concept album. That the record is at once a truly affecting wedding album and a sarcastic rebuke to ” the entire franchise of privileged white men making their spiritual void the dark center of the universe” is a small miracle, and a reminder of the fruitfulness and importance of the relationship between an artist and his muse. We don’t talk about muses very much anymore. It feels, in today’s society, slightly retrograde, if not inherently sexist, in that in both elevates and diminishes the woman’s role in a creative relationship. It’s no longer true (and it never really was true) that a woman’s only path to creative greatness is through being an inspiration to a male artist, but it feels as if that power imbalance is always implied when we discuss the role of the muse. We still idolize the great muses – Elizabeth Siddal, Dora Maar, Marianne Faithfull – but we feel uncomfortable applying the title in a modern-day context. It bears reminding that the women who are remembered as muses were very often artists in their own right, whose work has sometimes grown to overshadow their former muse status, and of course, there have been many women throughout history (from what we know of Sappho; through to Gertrude Stein, Anna Akhmatova, Virginia Woolf; to young artists like Sam Taylor-Johnson today) who created freely and leaned upon their own muses (of whatever gender) for inspiration. In short, the muse remains important, and the relationship of artist and muse is necessarily a complicated one, and cannot exist if the flow of inspiration is not mutual and empowering to both parties. To celebrate and elevate a partner as a muse should not be embarrassing, nor should it be seen as a diminishment of that person’s creative status. The most affecting art stems from the most intimate places.