I’ve loved Fleet Foxes ever since I saw them perform at my college in 2008 after seeing their name plastered all-over Seattle, music websites, and the side of Easy Street Records in Queen Anne. When they took the stage, it was clear they had all undergone what’s known as a “beard pact” and each wore a flannel woolier than the last, apart from Robin Pecknold who had lost his clothes somehow and was wearing a large red raincoat. Aside from the heartiness of their sound, I was left with a strange interest in their drummer, J. Tillman, who had unleashed some of the quickest, funniest stage-banter I’d ever heard. He seemed smartly aware of the band’s up-and-coming reputation but kept his comments in the interest of entertaining his audience. “Fear Fun”, Tillman’s release under the stage-name Father John Misty, retains that smart cynicism while giving him a chance to show his diverse songwriting abilities.
Tillman paints Father John Misty to be, at his core, a devout figure of Americana and traditionalist folk through writing lyrics like, “Oh pour me another drink/And punch me in the face/You can call me Nancy,” exuding a humorous and sincere air. Father John Misty may be framed by the two genres but he combines so many different sounds that he comes across more worldly than down-home. From the start of “Fun Times In Babylon”, Tillman builds his music into a collage of stomp-claps, richly contagious melody, and speak of beasts, death, and Hollywood. Even “I’m Writing A Novel”, possibly the most straightforward homage to big-band country, is leveled by lyrics that touch on talking monkeys and Canadian shamans. Through Father John, Tillman asserts himself as a creative entity who’s seemingly on the fence of practically every genre he wields. For many artists this balancing act is nearly impossibly, but Tillman comes through song after song with combinations of sounds that are uniquely his own.
The record also highlights Father John’s plight of fame-induced sadness. On “O I Long To Feel Your Arms Around Me” he sings “Everyone’s riding on the rolling tide/Their hearts are heavy and the sea is wide/I’ll never make it to the other side, friends of mine.” Even through the illustrious music, his self-defeating lyrics add a tone of sadness within every song. Given the diverse nature of his lyrics, “Misty’s Nightmares 1& 2” could be about virtually any horrific event or idea but he chooses to sing about something more relatable. He sings, “Now I’m watching you changing the mirror/And I’m unable to move/When all my girlfriends appear in the doorway/I don’t know how they got here.” In this context, the song is darkly hilarious and honest but the lines between Father John and Tillman are blurred to such an extent that it no longer appears to be a persona.
His relationship with women seems to be an area of focus for his lyrics on songs like “Only Son of the Ladies’ Man,” where he proclaims the death of another character from Father John’s universe. In explaining the Ladies’ Man, Tillman transforms himself into an all-encompassing seedy man through lyrics like, “Saw my ancient hero on the Sunset Strip/He left behind a legacy of ruin/Now painted ladies want to hold my gun.” In this mindset, Tillman is able to express insecurities, real or not, by using fictitious characters to blend different tones together.
Tillman has been writing music for years before he started drumming for Fleet Foxes. In fact, Damien Jurado is credited for helping Tillman gain more recognition. After a handful of solo albums, Tillman has created a masterfully crafted album filled with smart lyrics, thought-provoking sentiment, and overall wonderful music. “Fear Fun” not only validates his departure from his old band but solidifies his role as a colorful and unpredictable singer-songwriter, capable of assuming a variety of genres with ease.
When the news broke that The White Stripes had officially broken up back in February of 2011, my feelings were somewhat mixed: of course, The White Stripes were and still are one of my favourite bands, one of the few bands active in my lifetime whose discography seems to warrant obsessing over and scouring through in the same fashion as those of many more established legends, and, of course, you always look forward to a new album from your favourite band. The discovery that no such new album would ever come was naturally something of a disappointment.
But there was an excitement too: it had already been five years since the last White Stripes record, and you won’t find many people who would be willing to put “Icky Thump” and “Get Behind Me Satan” on the same critical pedestal that “Elephant”, “White Blood Cells” and “De Stijl” have risen to over time. The White Stripes may have broken up in 2011, but even to diehards it was obvious that the project was losing steam some time before that. With the break up announced, it was finally possible to anticipate a Jack White solo album, an album free from the much-commented upon, self-imposed restrictions of The White Stripes, or any of the obligations of working with a collaborator. Press releases in the build up to “Blunderbuss” stressed that these songs could not have been recorded as anything other than a Jack White album, and so anticipation heightened: “Blunderbuss” would be “Jack White: Unbounded”, or perhaps, given the turmoil of band breakup and White’s separation from his wife Karen Elson in the same year, “Jack White: Unhinged”.
Certainly there are signs on “Blunderbuss” that White’s songwriting has been informed by the tumultuous events of 2011. On the crunching single “Sixteen Saltines” White wails “Who’s jealous of who? If I get busy then I couldn’t care less what you do”. Similarly, on opening track “Missing Pieces”, he describes the departure of a partner as a process of painful disembodiment, albeit disguised by an upbeat tune and White’s faintly comic delivery of key lines – “I woke up and my hands were gone, yeah, I looked down and my legs were long gone.” All disguise, whether musical or tonal, is dropped for the track’s final, biting line: “Sometimes someone controls everything about you” and when that person leaves, they “take a part of you with them.” It’s hard not to imagine that White is describing Elson here, though it could just as easily be Meg White. After all, Jack did claim in a recent interview that “Meg completely controlled The White Stripes”.
Just whose presence it is that seems to pervade White’s lyrics here is ultimately not something to get hung up on: White showed plenty of bile as a member of The White Stripes and, given his obvious continuing readiness to put music ahead of personal history [Elson provides backing vocals on this album], it hardly seems fair to assume that hints of hostility here pertain to the real world any more than they did in his past work. White’s greatest talent, besides his breathtaking skill as a guitarist, has always been in fanciful first-person storytelling with an emotional punch.
Besides, beyond the prickliness of some of the opening tracks, “Blunderbuss” moves away from any remotely confessional territory and evolves into a genre-hopping joyride. The transformation begins with lead single “Love Interruption”, a fairly simple folk number whose macabre metaphors don’t make for the same uplifting reading on paper as they do when heard to a tune. It’s followed by the title track, an old western love story with an impeccably measured pedal steel guitar opening. White displays his punning chops as he and his lover flee from her previous man, “a romantic bust, a blunder turned explosive blunderbuss.”
Later White tackles old fashioned rhythm and blues on “I’m Shakin’” – the highlight of which has to be his tongue in cheek exaggeration of Little Willie John’s pronunciation of nervous [he’s “noy-vus”] – before some irresistibly cheery honky-tonk on “Trash Tongue Talker” and “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”. The result of all this good cheer is that by the time the upbeat final number, “Take Me With You When You Go”, comes around, the only thing preventing it from being bundled into the same category as previous, light-hearted White Stripes album closers like “It’s True That We Love One Another”, “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)”,and “Effect & Cause” is that “Blunderbuss” exhibits the same charm and ‘wink wink, nudge nudge’ attitude as those songs do for almost half of its length, not just at its conclusion. Oh, and also the fact that “Take Me With You When We Go” explodes into the hardest rocking track on the album at exactly its halfway point. The riff ranks among White’s finest and makes for an absolutely killer conclusion.
The only complaint that can really be borne against “Blunderbuss” is that it doesn’t feature a little more of the powerful riffing that it closes with and that people have come to expect from Jack White, though his music has been trending that way for some time. The result is that “Blunderbuss” doesn’t simply come off as “Jack White: Unbounded”, an explosion of raw creative energy in a newly personal context; rather, it’s simultaneously reserved and adventurous, reeling in the hard rock while putting out feelers everywhere else, and, importantly, it’s just a total blast.