If you can accept the fact that folk music is a dead genre, you’re going to enjoy it a lot more than you would otherwise. This is not to say that the art of folk music is dead, it’s just hard to imagine the envelope being pushed any farther than it has been. Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young (among others) informed every folk singer and band that came after them, for better or worse. Without those men, would we have, say, Iron & Wine, or Bright Eyes? I have been a fan of the sound for as long as I can remember, but one has to wonder how far the boundaries can be pushed anymore, without becoming something too far removed to even be considered folk music.
This is where Fleet Foxes came in. They took folk music and injected it with something pristine, and lacking in mud. It was like a band had been formed out of pristine sound of a unified chorus singing in a church, allowing their voices to penetrate every nook and cranny of their surroundings. I may be the only one, but when I first heard “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “White Winter Hymnal,” I felt like a tradition I had once admired had taken on a stark, beautiful new life, one that was not as dirty as its previous one, but just as beautiful.
Enter Father John Misty, also known as J. Tillman, former angelic-voiced beardsman of said Fleet Foxes. He’s got a voice to match the cadence of former bandmate Robin Pecknold, even if his doesn’t soar like Pecknold’s does. This is something that you shouldn’t bother entertaining the notion of begrudging: Tillman is more than a competent singer, and his voice more than captures the mood of what he’s attempting on the startlingly wonderful Fear Fun. It’s a record that is soaked in the pastoral traditions of the American south, but instead of accomplishing the glory of backwoods gospel like each Fleet Foxes release, here, he instead brings about a tradition of southern soul, letting the melodies do a lot of the heavy lifting. It’s a refreshing thing, really, especially because the sound never feel campy at all. And no, I’m not going to bore you with the nerdy details of how this song sounds like Neil Young, and that one sounds like Johnny Cash. To do that is to miss the joy that is spread out all over this album.
It’s an album that starts of slow and unassuming, with some of the sweetest harmonies you could ask for. “Fun Times in Babylon,” and indeed all of Fear Fun, makes good use of stark storytelling, where he sings about wanting to “abuse his lungs, smoking everything in sight with every girl I ever loved,” and dropping simple lines like “before they put me to work in a government camp” and “before the new wing of the prison ribbon ceremony,” which shouldn’t feel earnest, but are hard to take any other way. “Look out, Hollywood, here I come.”
One of the things that really comes through on multiple listens, though, is that there’s a wickedly funny edge to the album. “Now I’m Learning To Love The War” is an ode to the good things you can do with oil (records and paint, specifically), but once you’ve decided on whether or not he’s being sarcastic the whole time, you start to lose your grip on that standpoint. Likewise, “Writing a Novel” is the surprisingly earnest narrative of the self-important artist, who is oh-so into the idea of being an artist: at one point, the song’s narrator tells someone that “my reality is realer than yours.” It’s a line that makes you want to laugh out loud, but it’s hard to get distracted by how wonderful its framework can be.
One of the worst things about solo records is the fact that, half the time, you just want to sit there and compare this to that. Listening to Fear Fun, it feels easy to draw comparisons, but if you actually try and put those comparisons into words, it kinda slips away from you. The best thing about Fear Fun is that it doesn’t sound like Fleet Foxes: J. Tillman managed to forge his own path in a dead art, even though it would have been simpler to just rehash the sound of his own band. But, in the end, it’s more fun that the record sounds like the musings of a songwriter that is a wry, funny, and human, and not an angel-voiced and solemn. And, most importantly, it’s the sound of someone who isn’t content with a dead genre.