Josh Tillman's most enduring creation remained a divisive figure when he played The Civic last weekend.
“YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE,” a woman in the audience screams.
It must be Saturday night at a Father John Misty show.
At least the audience is smiling before the show starts. Hanging out in the long outdoor hallway into the Civic smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and store-bought, they’re is a diverse mix ranging from seniors in Hawaiian print to young adults with vintage Prytania Theater T-shirts and headbands. A few people are almost as dressed up as Father John Misty, and they’re not even in his band. Is it to make fun of the suit Misty wears? Are they mistying Misty? Or are they emulating his image?
People are not smiling during much of the show. They are shifting around. They are falling asleep in the Civic’s seats. They are frowning. In the case of a light-skinned man on the balcony, they are complaining about “watching a show about a white man complaining”. Or, in the case of the woman in the audience screaming expletives, she begs Father John Misty to play 2017’s Pure Comedy for the first hour of the show by shouting the song name in the ears of everyone near her, and when he does, she has a meltdown. “He’s making fun of us,” she whimpers to her unfortunate neighbors as her plus one escorts her out.
But let’s be honest, if you prepared yourself before attending this show, you knew you weren’t in for what’s traditionally considered a good time. You were in to watch Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman) present his version of reality, however skewed and warped by his own layers of artifice, cockiness, and actual talent. And that was certainly delivered.
Misty is rarely an entertainer who’s trying to get you to smile, dance, or even have a good time. He might appear to be trying to during the more fast-paced and even sweet songs, but pause a moment to consider and you’ll realize that his moves are carefully planned to imitate other entertainers rather than authentically entertain you. By swinging your hips or humming words along with him, you might in fact be participating in an experiment you’re not aware of.
After all, Misty has a complicated relationship with the entertainment industry. During his infamous 2016 meltdown, he went on a long rant and said--among other things--that “stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid,” which wouldn’t have been so bad if he didn’t then yell at the audience for applauding him and demand that they just “take a moment to be really fucking sad”. He’s not a guy who’s trying to make sure you have a superficially wonderful time tonight at his sold-out show.
In fact, sometimes Misty seems hell-bent on preaching at you, especially when he’s playing songs from 2017’s Pure Comedy. In the album’s titular song, he explains how we start out life: “The comedy of man starts like this / our brains are way too big for our mother's hips / And so Nature, she divines this alternative / We emerged half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end / Is kind enough to fill us in.” In “Ballad of a Dying Man”, he imagines the hero’s reflections: “And had he successively beaten back the rising tide / Of idiots, dilettantes, and fools / On his watch while he was alive / Lord, just a little more time”.
It’s not a surprising tactic. Misty’s first career choice was a pastor, which he changed for a musician after learning the drums when he was twelve. His lyrics and delivery retain the quality of an alternatively angry, disappointed and depressed preacher. The depressed preacher is the most difficult to bear, because he can’t even pretend he’s there for entertainment at that point (“So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain” and “Ballad of a Dying Man” are the worst culprits). At least “Pure Comedy” is more of a fire-and-brimstone, with Misty dramatically wiping his forehead and sighing in choreographed moments.
Thankfully Misty’s 2018 album God’s Favorite Customer is a simpler compilation that 2017’s Pure Comedy. It’s a more succinct album, including new live favorites “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “Mr. Tillman”, with (relatively) pared-back instrumentals and his distinctive, haunting vocals. “Mr. Tillman” is the track from God’s Favorite Customer that holds up the most at the Civic, told from the perspective of a concierge at a hotel Misty is staying in. Misty shut himself up in hotel for a few weeks to write the album, an unoriginal move that actually produced a pretty original album. Others, including “Pure Comedy”, felt indulgent and patronizing. Typically New Orleans crowds are not those who like to be preached to.
However, you wouldn’t know that Misty had just gone in a more light, streamlined direction on his last album if you were at the show. His band jumps into almost all the songs, adding texture to even his most pared-down thoughts with brass, strings and keys. Sometimes, the additions make for a richer experience, but the audience responds the most for moments that are just Misty. His lonely whistling during Misty classic “Nancy From Now On” earns raucous cheers, leaving doubt that he really needs this many band members.
Despite the darkness and the preaching, there are a few light moments during the set. There’s the audience erupting into cheers when Misty sings,“It's cheaper in the South” during “I Went to the Store One Day”. There’s the simple whistling during “Nancy from Now On”. There’s the sweet “Real Love Baby,” where Misty sways and whistles, and couples reach for each other’s hands.
Perhaps the most magical thing of all is that Misty draws a sold-out audience of people who are likely all criticized at some point during his set. And the next time he’s in town, they might even come back.