There are very rare instances when a musician leaves an established band to focus on a more personal project that ends up living up to his former band’s standards. There are even fewer instances where that musician ends up (arguably) surpassing them. Brent Knopf achieved that very feat this year with Ramona Falls’ Prophet, which has exceeded anything Menomena has done. Now J. Tillman has done the exact same thing as Father John Misty with Fear Fun, which isn’t as much to detract from Fleet Foxes as it is a testament to Tillman’s abilities. Fleet Foxes have always been an exceptional band, but Fear Fun provides a variation on their formula that ultimately emerges as an unexpected improvement.
That improvement is hinted at immediately with “Funtimes in Babylon”, Fear Fun‘s opening track. All the Fleet Foxes staples are in place, the gorgeous harmonies, lush atmospherics, and an easygoing tempo. As it progresses it expands and, in that expansion, takes on a unique identity helped along by Tillman’s vivid lyrics. When he hits that first falsetto, it’s stunning enough to be breathtaking. Ultimately, the most notable difference after “Funtimes in Babylon” in comparing Tillman to his former band is his directness. It’s maintained throughout the course of the record. Everything on Fear Fun feels more impassioned and personal than the vast majority of Fleet Foxes’ discography.
“Nancy from Now On” continues Fear Fun‘s experimentation with layers. All the layers on the track (and there are a lot) combine seamlessly and create a beautiful and sprawling whole. This is the best kind of wide-open music, perfect for driving to an unknown destination. That road-readiness is especially apparent on album highlight “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”. All crunchy guitar and driving back-beat, Tillman makes the most of his vocal range here. It’s a natural fit and when the line “We should let this dead guy sleep” hits, it’s impossible to imagine Tillman wasn’t relishing it in full. Around this point on Fear Fun is where it becomes abundantly clear that Tillman’s got a vision worthy of sticking to and presenting. In doing this, he ultimately ends up offering up the year’s most impressive and original debut so far (with the possible exception of Old Time Machine’s self-titled album).
“I’m Writing a Novel” continues Fear Fun‘s winning streak early on and is, as is the rest of the album, perfectly placed. Perhaps more than any other track on Fear Fun, it demonstrates Tillman’s lyrical capabilities, opening brilliantly with the line, “I ran down the road, pants down to my knees, screaming please come help me that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!” “I’m Writing A Novel” is the perfect ramshackle folk song and effortlessly recalls the genre’s best moments and wouldn’t have been that out of place on, say, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Saloon-style piano, shuffling snare, harmonica blasts, charging acoustic rhythms, and potential On the Road references culminate to make it another album highlight.
“O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” offers a brief reprieve from the trailblazing tempos, but retains the qualities that make Fear Fun such an incredible album. There’s a soft haze of organ swirls and reverbed drums to keep a near-cinematic scope, while Tillman’s lilting vocals combine and form the subtle grandeur that permeates Fear Fun‘s every crevice. It’s a lovely song and goes a long way in helping Fear Fun keep its pace. “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” is a mid-tempo rambler that layers itself over a slightly distorted staccato’d organ riff. There’s an eerie quality to the track, especially during the gut-punch served up in the line “I’m going to take my life…I’m going to take my life back.” This is around the moment where I realized how brilliant Fear Fun was. Of course, there was always the choice for the back half to ruin that brilliance, but in cases like this, when the first half is so uniformly strong, it’s a safe bet that the rest of the record will be smooth sailing.
When “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” draws to a hazy finish, it sets up the ensuing track “Only Son of the Ladiesman” perfectly. The two tracks end up having a lot of similar qualities except the eerie downtrodden aspect of the former is replaced with a persistent sense of hopefulness via the instrumental arrangements in the latter. The vocal chorus layers prove to be especially effective and offer the instruments extra room to breathe. It’s a beautiful track that elevates the projected trajectory of the album from great to “approaching masterpiece” territory. “This Is Sally Hatchet” dabbles ever-so-slightly in psychedelia to great effect and gets increasingly better as it progresses, going from a slightly disappointing entry to one of Fear Fun‘s most memorable moments with its stunning outro segment that may most adeptly showcase how Father John Misty and Fleet Foxes differ in musical approach.
“Well, You Can Do It Without Me” feels like a spiritual heir to Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle” by putting the Freewheelin’ sensibilities at the forefront once again. It’s a sound that’s familiar, but hasn’t really been attempted lately, which makes its mastery here all the more surprising. It’s a very good fit for Tillman and he makes the most out of it. Wisely, it’s one of Fear Fun‘s briefest moments and plays into the album’s aesthetic perfectly. Following “Well, You Can Do It Without Me” is the lovely “Now I’m Learning to Love the War”, which is one of the album’s most lyrically impressive moments and one of the first songs involving war in a long while (possibly since the Thermals’ The Body, the Blood, the Machine to not sound trite. When it ends with “I sure hope they make something useful out of me,” the line hits with a ferocity of a freight train and delivers one of Fear Fun‘s many knock-out punches.
“Tee-Pee’s 1-12” starts off as one of the most traditional barn-burning acoustic numbers before evolving into a chorus that sounds similar to Dr. Dog. As soon as that section lands, it doesn’t waste much time in transitioning back to Charlie Daniels territory and absolutely blazes back and forth between the two brilliantly. Then Fear Fun‘s most intense moment closes out the album: “Everyman Needs a Companion” is the record’s most impassioned, most direct, most confessional, and most incredible moment. After a few verses the listening experience begins to feel as voyeuristic as it did on The Libertines, where you could literally hear that band’s relationships falling apart. This time around, you hear a man finding himself and setting a new path. Demons are wrestled with, resolutions are made, and an unbelievable song continuously jumps out of the speakers. It’s the longest track on Fear Fun, and it deserves every second and more.
When all is said and done and the album’s played through, it’s apparent that Father John Misty has crafted an album that’s destined to rank very high up on many year-end lists. It’s also abundantly clear that Tillman’s set himself up quite nicely for the long haul. Every track on Fear Fun is laced with its own unique, original, and intriguing charm. Ultimately, it’ll be hard to find a more awe-inspiring album this year than Fear Fun. This is a record that deserves a spot in just about any contemporary music collection.