Sonically speaking, Fleet Foxes are defined by two things: the supernatural spotlessness of their harmonies and the impeccable execution of their arrangements. The band’s perfect glow of musically symmetrical smoothness is something both admirers and detractors seem to agree on: It either inspires awe or snoozing, but it doesn’t seem to be of this earth. Former drummer Josh Tillman left Fleet Foxes in 2011, and on Fear Fun—his first album under the new, pleasingly daft moniker Father John Misty—he puts his feet back on the ground, playing thunder-crash guitar and singing morbidly funny songs about sex, death, drug freakouts, and talking dogs. Imagine an angel being cast out of heaven to live a profoundly weird life in Laurel Canyon with nothing but a stack of Neil Young and Harry Nilsson LPs to guide him. That sums up the aesthetic, and the appeal, of Fear Fun.
Tillman claims he ended up in L.A. at the end of a drug-fueled journey he took in a van over the course of several months. In that time he adopted his new musical persona, which he sings about in Fear Fun’s shambling closer “Everyman Needs A Companion”: “Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones / couldn’t give me a myth / so I had to write my own,” he sings over gospel piano, handclaps, and a steady guitar strum that sounds like a Nilsson Schmilsson outtake.
But the myths that most fascinate Tillman derive from his new home, a famed hillside community that immediately conjures all kinds of hippie dreams and Hollywood nightmares. The death-obsessed folk-rocker “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is a direct homage to Young’s On The Beach, a record that shares Fear Fun’s sense of spiritual confusion and sardonic cynicism about the canyon’s tweaked culture. “I’m Writing A Novel” takes this weariness in a likeably lighthearted direction—this is where the talking dogs show up—that carries over to the whole of Fear Fun. Tillman soaks up the sounds, smells, and free-floating strangeness of his environment, and revels in its humanity.