One Saturday night in January at the Black Sheep in Colorado Springs, J. Tillman, who records and tours under the moniker Father John Misty, opened his concert with "Funtimes in Babylon," a haunting ballad that also opens his splendid 2012 album, Fear Fun. Once the song was over, Tillman peered across the audience, mock seriousness on his face. "Is there a doctor in the house?" he asked. "A Dr. … James Dobson?"
Dr. Dobson no longer runs the ministry he founded—though it remains in town with its own ZIP code—but Colorado Springs' conservative evangelical culture is undeniable, even if some of us have grown weary of it. In the more suburban parts of the city, coffee shops seem to host an endless series of Francis Chan or Beth Moore study groups. If Tillman had wanted fresh zingers, he'd have been blessed with options.
Indeed, on the rare occasions when bigger rock acts pass through town, they often make playful jibes, and most of us enjoy them. "So … we're in …Colorado Springs?" Jeff Tweedy of Wilco called out when his band played the Pikes Peak Center a few years back (and then delivered the best of the several Wilco shows I've seen in various cities). A couple winters ago when The Decemberists performed at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colin Meloy stepped to the mic during one of the band's jauntier songs and implored the audience: "Dance like you're at a megachurch!"
But Tillman, it turned out, was not playfully jibing. He was stating the evening's thesis: I am here to mock you. And as if writing a college essay, Tillman returned to his thesis all night long.
Tillman's steady and flexible output in recent years has earned him rising-star status. After a series of solo efforts, Tillman scored a gig playing drums, harmonizing, and touring the world with Fleet Foxes, one of the more prominent folk-rock bands of recent years. He left Fleet Foxes in early 2012, and about six months later, released Father John Misty's Fear Fun to well-deserved acclaim. The album boasts a gorgeous freak-folk atmosphere and pithy lyrics across each of its twelve tracks—there's hardly a skippable song on the project, not least because of Tillman's enviable vocals. I tend to binge on new music discoveries until I'm sick of them, but the Father John Misty album has only improved with near-constant play.
Until that Saturday night, that is. Fear Fun sounds vapid to me now, because the artist behind it suggested that he is a vapid man.
After the funny opening joke about Dobson, Tillman was out of fresh material, but he was only just beginning. Every few songs, Tillman found ways to remind us that he used to be a backwater believer—forced to listen to "Adventures in Odyssey" night after night, and all that—but he was done with religion now, and he pitied us poor fools who must be laboring under the palpable lameness of a city of faith. Our presence seemed to remind him that people do live in places like this, after all, and they must be suckers, each and every one. There's a way to be funny if you want to carry on an axe-grinding shtick like that, but if you're not clever or goofy or wickedly brilliant, you've got to be charming, and Tillman was none of the above. He was just annoyed and, in turn, annoying.
A blanket of ire
Tillman has dished plenty about the aggravations of his fundamentalist Christian upbringing—the parents conversant only with their siloed church culture, the overwrought guilt about the sexual urges of puberty, the escapist eschatology, and so on. Amusingly to this Southern Baptist born-and-bred boy, Tillman cites Barry Maguire's 1978 album Bullfrogs and Butterflies as one of his earliest musical influences (chorus: "Bullfrogs and butterflies / We've both been born again!"), and I can sympathize with the desire to shake that particular dust off your feet.
But Tillman's problem isn't just religion. On stage, Tillman's contempt for Colorado Springs and its symbolic significance came off as just a piece of his larger contempt for, well … what, exactly? Everything? Including his own music? Tillman struck his pose of contempt early on, and he couldn't contain it, couldn't pinpoint Christian fundamentalism as the problem full stop. His ire soon blanketed everything, overwhelming his every gesture, his every expression. Each sincere, thoughtful song on Fear Fun turned out to be a joke, and the joke was on us. Tillman sang and danced insincerely to his own tunes, shaking his hips ironically, wagging his finger at no one in particular, and generally offering a vision of drunken frat-boy karaoke. Imagine a performer that is equal parts Russell Brand and Prince-on-Quaaludes, and you'll have some sense of Father John Misty.
"I'm glad you're here," he told us at one point, perhaps realizing that it was an open question. "Otherwise, this would be some sort of weird conceptual art."
The songs on Fear Fun I had been marinating in, taking seriously, and flat-out enjoying for weeks on end are now laden with Tillman's pathetic but enthusiastic irony—and are more or less ruined by it. Take a lyric like "How was I to know / That milk and honey flow / Just a couple states below" from the song "Nancy From Now On" and perform it with a look at me hip shake, finger wag, and batted eyes. The attitude depletes the lines of their mournful energy. It's a net loss for the music.
Ruining a beautiful song
Late in the set, Tillman seemed to catch himself. He paced for a few seconds, then offered: "I was about to say something. But instead, let's just listen to this beautiful song." He nodded to his lead guitarist, who—and surely I'm reading into this—looked relieved as he began to fill the void with something worth hearing.
Good performers have bad nights. I'd like to imagine a different kind of Father John Misty show in a town that doesn't push Tillman's ex-fundamentalist buttons, and indeed, I've read show reviews that describe Tillman as genuinely funny. Maybe he can be. Maybe he had a touch too much to drink beforehand, or, as Tillman offered at one point, "These might be altitude-induced asides." Maybe this town just brought out the worst in him.
Colorado Springs has long been fair game for mocking. I'd be the chief of hypocrites were I to complain about someone complaining about the culture of this city. It's the birthright of many of us who call the city home, and we're pretty practiced at it. Living here happily means coming to terms with the city's entrenched religious culture, and coming to terms with that culture means being able to laugh at its many foibles.
So hey, Father John: We get it—Colorado Springs is a weird evangelical town. We know it, and the likes of Colin Meloy and Jeff Tweedy seem to know we know it. We're in on the joke. Should you ever return, keep that in mind, and don't let us ruin your beautiful songs.