Compulsive listmaker that I am, I keep a running tab on the best releases of the year, every year. I hear something good, it goes on there. My thinking is that if I write it down, I'll have more time to live with the albums and sort out my feelings about them by the time I have to share the list with you fine people. Though, it must be said that occasionally something gets a touch more consideration than anything else. When I found out that Chromatics had put their latest, the moody Kill For Love, on Soundcloud, that was all I listened to for several days. When one day my friend Joe Montone sent me a text asking what I thought of Father John Misty, it set off a chain of events, the latest of which is this post and which won't conclude until well after the first of May. Not only had I not listened to it, I had no idea what it was. Which made me feel rather silly because it was only the nom de plume of J. Tillman, the man whose music litters my film I Need You and who provides one fourth of the harmony voices of Fleet Foxes as well as playing their drums. He'd quit the band with the promise of new music, but how was I supposed to know that he'd be this quick about starting his third life? The album promised by the little I could find to read on the subject suggested something bigger and more open than his beautiful, sparse early efforts. Something that dripped with the ethos of its California spawning location. No familiar names in the liner notes, no familiar notes in the music. I was intrigued, if unnecessarily. The man could cough into a mic with the flu and I'd pay twice what it was worth to hear it. So when the promo showed up at Siren the other day, I threw it on so fast everyone's goddamn head spun.
I played it twice in a row and then left it there. I talked it up with my friend/co-worker Ash, who, it should be said, is maybe the most picky human being alive when it comes to music. She digs old folk, blues and country, but draws lines even there that I often strain to fathom. She hears the new releases week after week of new artists yet only seems to enjoy the band Pontiak. I recommend music sparingly; I've been burned before. So it wasn't lightly that I offered the incredibly light seeming: "You might not hate it." The following afternoon I was at home when she asked me over the phone who this guy was. "He seems very nice from what little interaction we've had." "There are references to ethnobotany all over this record." I came in to the store to hear her namecheck somethings I recognized but couldn't put any meaning to, but evidently he was speaking her language. She caught the namechecking of Joseph Campbell, Cosmic Serpent, Ayahuasca, and heard what she thought might be references to Daniel Pinchbeck. She's an aspiring ethnobotanist and as such seemed to hear things in this album that I wouldn't. I caught his musical influences and all the references to the post-60s view of Hollywood, when they finally sat about discussing what they had just started to call the Golden Age. To me, the songs have the second-hand smoke of Jim/Brian Jones, Charlie Manson, Sharon Tate and Bob Rafelson about them. She heard something else entirely, but we'd both heard it loud and clear. That is the mark of a great work of art.
When I heard the opening minute and a half of School of Seven Bells' Ghostory I called it the best album of the year, half-jokingly, but half-seriously because I could tell that they'd filled out their sound in a way that was logical given the . By one minute twenty one seconds it had been dethroned by Fear Fun by Father John Misty. The first song encapsulates the whole album pretty squarely, but it doesn't quite give you the whole picture. Listen to "Funtimes in Babylon" and you'll know that all of Fear Fun, due on the first of May, is unpretentious, just as expansive and gorgeous as he's ever been (though the mud covered forest floors and mist-shrouded barren landscapes of his earlier efforts have been replaced with flourishing farms and hills so green they're almost golden), and rounded out by orchestration that runs into every corner of the space, making sure that his voice is backed at every turn as if laying on a sea of hands carrying him from one end of a concert hall to another. Of course, what it doesn't tell you is how fun the record is in the meantime. You'll miss the hallucinogenic Van Morrison vibe of "I'm Writing A Novel," the honky-tonk revivalist pop of "Tee Pees 1-12," the acidic slow-burning waves of "This is Sally Hatchet" which features the greatest instrumental closing of any song this year (and that includes "Rodent" by Pharoah Overlord, but just barely). The album's influences are borderless, but also exactly late 60s California on the nose. It's a little overwhelming at first, but that feeling goes away when you realize how perfectly considered every song is, independently and in the context of the album. Tillman comes across as both disheveled truth-seeker, small before creation and ever eager to have his mind expanded and bed-hopping wise-ass lucky but not precisely grateful about not having been killed by his lifestyle. I'm not sure which I like better. The man with the shit-eating grin wearing a full beard and yesterday's clothes at the banquet gives us "Only Son of the Ladies Man" and "Well, You Can Do It Without Me," and truly sets the record apart from the first five Tillman records. But the man frightened and humbled by not understanding his place in the universe is the one whose voice goes to the most stirring and resonant places, as on "Now I'm Learning To Love The War," and stunning album closer "Everyman Needs A Companion," which is the most confessional song on a very personal record, and features maybe my favourite lyric he's ever sung: "I got hung up on Religion, though I know it's a waste. I Never Liked The Name Joshua. I Got Tired of J." How do you not fall in love with a crisis so identifiable which is yet the definition of exclusive? Everyone has to live with their name; you can change it, but who are you trying to convince ultimately? Tillman has thus explained the reason for his new moniker and closed out a completely shattering collection of sun-dried chamber pop right where we started, but infinitely better off. He still stands tiny in the face of the mysteries of the universe, every blade of grass, folk song and drunken evening a new universe to be contemplated, but we've got this record, and that, as he well knows, will last forever.