THREE YEARS AGO, SINGER-SONGWRITER J. Tillman traded morose ballads for mordant wit, headed down the coast from Seattle to Los Angeles and rechristened himself Father John Misty. Surrounding himself with pedal steel, strings and vocal chorales, the former Fleet Foxes drummer cracked wise about a world choked by plastic and decadence, chronicling the itinerant dreams that have crashed along the shores and highways of L.A. ever since they poured the concrete. The music of his debut, 2012’s Fear Fun, swirled in a diffident haze, like smoke in the air or whiskey in a glass, but beneath lurked a searcher’s moralism that verged on cosmic outrage.
On the second Father John album, the search terms have changed: In a chance encounter in the parking lot of the Country Store on Laurel Canyon Drive, Tillman met Emma Garr, the love of his life, a woman who “blackens pages like a Russian romantic, gets down more often than a blow-up doll.” If that sounds like too much information, buckle up: You will soon be shown the view when she’s naked and astride him; hang with them in the Chateau Marmont as they celebrate Satanic Christmas Eve; wait patiently as he deciphers the “mascara, blood, ash and cum” patterns on the “Rorschach sheets” where they make love; and listen as he recounts to her the dream he had about kissing his brother. You know, couple stuff.
The intimacy is dizzying and comforting, which is exactly what Tillman, 33, wants: His goal is to write songs that are worthy of the terrifying thrills that love and marriage have shown him. In language both absurdist and direct, he captures the way that true romance upends your life and challenges you to live up to its initial flush. The world he left behind is here as well, in songs about strange encounters with girls who get naked in the tub with their best friends or black out in his house. “I wanna find somebody,” he thinks as he tries not to freak out over the latter. “Not like this. I’m a decent person. A little aimless.”
The tracks float along on melodic exhalations that recall everything from Lee Hazelwood’s international playboy antics to Rufus Wainwright’s lachrymose orchestrations. Lyrically, Tillman has a penchant for enjambment that leaves punchlines and revelations momentarily suspended, so songs unfold with continual surprises.
Perhaps the biggest one is how often it all succeeds. If there’s a funnier, stranger and more touchingly bizarre album released this year, it will be a very good year indeed.