The core tenet of Josh Tillman’s work as Father John Misty is duality. Both of his albums, 2012’s Fear Fun and this year’s highly acclaimed I Love You Honeybear oscillate between tones at any given moment. Particularly on that second album, one could never tell whether Tillman would be cynical or sweet, performative or sincere, viscous or tender, bitter or funny. This duality is only amplified in the vast space inside the Sydney Opera House, as Tillman switches between acoustic folk ballads, hair metal showboating, and improvised comedy between, and sometimes during songs.
Arriving on stage with a distinctive swagger, Tillman quickly demonstrated that his wry, sarcastic persona inhabited in I Love You Honeybear is no act. In fact, he appeared to be a very good, or at least bemused mood during the show, constantly bantering with audience members and his own band. In between playing his own questionably described “folk mega-hits”, Tillman spent much of the show bragging about his lone Grammy nomination for “Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package”. In an impromptu Q&A session during the encore, when asked how he would top the packaging on his next release, Tillman replied “I think the only real was to escalate would be to win a Grammy for the contents of the packaging”. Tillman’s sense of humor actually made the show feel like it was as much a stand up performance as it was a musical act, which was a perfect fit for his music and persona.
The most distinctive songs he performed were his two most lecherous, The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt. and The Ideal Husband. The former he described as “the most despicable thing I’ve ever written” before beginning to play, and the lyrics certainly match his description. A tale of a one night stand, Tillman spends the entire song cruelly pointing out every one of his conquest’s flaws – “now every insufferable convo / features her patiently explaining the cosmos” – lending the song an air of queasy, self-aware misogny that was only amplified when performed to a crowd. Whilst funny, the song is a guilty pleasure, as one must indulge Tillman in his nastiest qualities to appreciate it. However, later on in The Ideal Husband, he chronicles himself reaching rock bottom – “didn’t call when Grandma died / spend my money getting drunk and high” – displaying the self-awareness that makes his work so fascinating. Plus, he screams the final verse as the band explodes into punk noise, making a very strong case for Tillman as a rock star.
Another duality revealed by seeing Tillman and his band perform live, is the amount of growth his songwriting shows between his two albums. The songs from Fear Fun, whilst artfully composed and very enjoyable, lack the wit of his more recent work, and come across as more simplistic acoustic folk songs. As such, the lighting tended to represent the changing style of the band, with the older work being lit by white light, giving the bearded and suit-wearing crew the look of a blues band playing in a dive bar. The songs from I Love You Honeybear on the other hand, were lit by blinding coloured lights, as Tillman often put down his guitar to leap around the stage like a more folksy Axl Rose. He climbed up on the drum kit three separate times, by my count, and regularly slid to the front of the stage on his knees, most memorably in Bored In The USA, as he commandeered a phone from an audience member in the front row, and after trying to take a selfie, asked the band to restart the song to “get the lighting right”.
At times it was hard to tell what was choreographed and what was improvised, since Tillman’s dancing possesses such a distinct sleazy masculinity that it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than his own id acting out on stage. But then he would end up centre stage for a perfectly timed lighting cue and would be suddenly silhouetted against waves of bright green or purple. With that dichotomy, Tillman takes the persona he embodies on record to its logical conclusion in a live context, and whilst it may remove some of the intimacy of the album, it makes up for it in hilarity and sheer unbridled, ridiculous fun.
I Love You, Honeybear
Only Son of the Ladiesman
When You’re Smiling and Astride Me
The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.
I’m Writing a Novel
Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)
Nancy From Now On
Bored in the USA
Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow
This is Sally Hatchet
Hollywood Forever Cemetry Sings
Funtimes in Babylon
The Ideal Husband
I Went to the Store One Day
Everyman Needs a Companion