I walked to Dupont Circle on January 20th. The air was weird in the city – there wasn’t much traffic on my walk, vehicular or pedestrian. The calendar said Friday, but the atmosphere was more like the one that settles in a room when someone tells a joke in a crowded room and stillness fills the space where there should’ve been laughter. Everything smelled like weed.
And for good reason – people were literally handing it out at the circle. No more than a hundred feet from where a group of scraggly-ass bearded white men were loitering in “Bikers for Trump” jackets and caps, a giant steel cage had been erected on the sidewalk. A crowd of about a hundred people had gathered, some milling like ants, others queued in an orderly fashion, waiting for their turn to be handed a joint from one of many arms stretched through the bars of the cage.
I briefly considered joining the line to get my own green piece of history, mulling the time the line would steal on a busy day versus the humor I would find in being handed a free joint by caged weirdos downtown on Inauguration Day. Ultimately, I was swayed by a comment I overheard an old Willie Nelson-type make to his friend: “I bet that shit’s laced with something.” I didn’t buy it, but then again, I didn’t like weed all that much. I settled for posting an out-of-focus picture of the caged weed-distributing protesters to my story on Snapchat.
After the momentary novelty of the scene had faded, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the spectacle. On the brink of the cementation of the most devastating election in modern America, particularly to anyone who wasn’t a straight white person, there were a whole lot of apparently straight white people spending their day gathering petition signatures to legalize weed. That’s not to say they had to spend their day protesting – it just felt like analogous to a businessman racing to the scene of a house fire to promote his product to the news cameras while people were still trapped inside. I continued my walk toward the National Mall, and over the revving of Trump’s Confederacy of Hogs, I could hear a separate cheer rise up from the weed crowd. The dissonance was dizzying.
“Nancy From Now On” is a fundamental block in understanding Father John Misty as one of the great songwriters and performers of the twenty-first century. It establishes some of the hallmarks of the Misty character – biting wit, searing self-deprecation, and just enough lyrical nebulousness to evoke a sense that beyond the literal story of the song, there is a deeper universal sentiment being shared.
The song is bookended by the lines:
“Oh, pour me another drink and punch me in the face. You can call me Nancy,”
“Give me how it was, a place under the sun, before the devil made me run. Run boy, run boy!”
But really, the wit and beauty of the song can’t be transcribed through writing, as you can imagine. It is the tension between the timbre and tonality of the music and the lyrics that drives the song. The music is honey sweet and Misty is glassy-eyed and neutered as he sings those first caustic lines. It’s saccharine, deliberately misleading – the kind of song you’d play on a drive to the beach with the family if you didn’t pay attention to the lyrics. The dissonance is maddening, and it’s only alleviated ever-so-briefly by the echoing and erratic mashing of ivory that bridges the last verse with the last chorus.
Misty strikes the same strained chord with I Love You, Honeybear’s “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.” Sonically, it’s timeless, a song you can imagine soundtracking the early A.M. hours of a World War II-era Parisian afterparty as clearly as a late evening round of drinks on a Washington D.C. rooftop on the eve of something awful.
Lyrically, it floats in that same non-committal twilight zone of “Nancy”: “Oh my God, I swear this never happens,” makes literal sense in the context of the song. The next line, “Lately, I can’t stop the wheels from spinning,” drifts a little further from reality. It’s hypnotizing. I’ve always wondered what he meant.
Farragut Square, usually bordered by the likes of Ethiopian, Mexican, and Russian food trucks at midday on a Friday was instead bordered by humvees and soldiers, eyes shielded by uniform sunglasses. A foggy blanket of clouds had covered the sun most of the day.
I was sure the military presence and the gravel trucks converted into makeshift roadblocks were not unique to this inauguration and had been deployed for Barack Obama’s celebration four and eight years earlier as well. There was no reason I should view these security precautions as menacing rather than sheltering. But, context is everything.
My path was impeded by a security checkpoint. The lack of signage of any kind made it unclear as to whether it was a general checkpoint or solely for security personnel, and I didn’t want to approach at the risk of getting my shit fucked up.
Walking around the block, I came across a small gathering. A group of apparent Satanists was parading a pentagram banner down the block toward the Mall, and the small group had attracted a slightly larger group of onlookers and photographers.
This feels like an appropriate time to mention it felt like there were two photographers for every inauguration celebrator downtown, tripping over themselves to take pictures of a lonely burning trash can and a few toppled newspaper boxes, desperate to find a story in the crushing greyness of the event. I felt more secure with my camera because I was taking pictures of street vendors hawking Minions-themed Inauguration tees.
But, the Satanists. It was unclear if they were celebrating the inauguration, protesting it, or simply promoting the general shape of the pentagram on a day with greater media presence than usual.
As they marched down the street, I hustled a bit to get ahead of them. I tried to take a funny selfie with the group and their banner in the background to memorialize the occasion, but when I saw on my phone screen that my shot was blocked by a pair of young adults behind me trying to get the exact same selfie with the tame Satanists, I quickly became embarrassed and carried on my way.
Part of the great appeal of Father John Misty was the way he seemed to be letting the listener in on the joke. The material was just inaccessible enough to nestle comfortably in the “outsider” pocket of music, lyrics alternating between ironic posturing and hypercritical jabs at the absurdity of society so that when a glimpse of sincerity peeked through, it was significant. Through his music, Misty was assuring the listener that they weren’t crazy, it was the rest of the world. He was a spirit guide through the West, giving voice to absurdities and hypocrisies through allegory and allusion.
But times are changing. It feels as if Misty has become increasingly cognizant that being “in” on the joke doesn’t carry much heft anymore. He was vocally critical of Donald Trump and the movement he helmed during the election, and his recent string of singles and videos are responses to the absurdity of the times.
I’m vaguely reminded of the career of John Stewart, who made a name off a snappy but deep wit that was introduced as liberal currency during the Bush era and promulgated throughout the Obama age. He ended up leaving The Daily Show to work on more concrete, less sarcastic projects. He always seemed a step ahead of the rest of us – maybe he knew what was to come wouldn’t be stopped by the shame of comedy.
We’ve found ourselves in a time where the left’s attempts at resistance through zingers, owns, and clapbacks have been revealed to be embarrassingly impotent, where mockery of Trump’s hair, hands, ass, and gut feel more like involuntary anxious tics than sane responses to the magnitude of oppression that threatens to erase lives on the horizon. And that juxtaposition – limp, brand-promoting, self-satisfied irony against world-ending insanity – is increasingly disturbing.
Music as often experienced in America is entertainment first and only political when it doesn’t detract from the entertainment. That mindset was evident in the popular response to Kendrick Lamar’s masterwork To Pimp A Butterfly: “I’m sure it’s great, but I can’t make myself listen to it.” But what happens when the escapism of popular entertainment less resembles the vacation of a stressed worker and is more akin to skipping work to get high?
The analogy is less melodramatic than you would assume when you consider the real life implications. If in a few months, you have the choice to either protest yet another in a seemingly endless string of retweaked immigrant bans or to go home to a nice dinner and the season finale of Game of Thrones, do you think you’ll be out in the heat? Do you think your friends will? There are lives at stake, but when Jimmy Kimmel pokes fun at you for being a keyboard warrior at the Oscars, won’t you feel like everyone’s in on the joke anyway?
In late July, Father John made headlines for a “speech” (note: that would have been reported differently if the deliverer had been, say, Kanye West) during the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden, New Jersey.
When the collective consciousness was so numb and so fucking sated and so gorged on entertainment… How entertaining should this be right now with a fucking battleship in the background [of the festival] and this shit on TV, how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense? Like, I cannot play ‘Bored in the USA’ for you right now. No no no, because guess what? I soft-shoed that shit into existence by going, ‘No no no, look over here, it’ll never actually be that bad because we’re too smart.’ And while we were looking in that direction, stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid! Do you guys realize that?
How long can you keep making jokes when the target of your mockery is squeezing you into a coffin and nailing you in? Some jokes don’t feel so funny anymore.
The Washington Monument almost blended into the grey sky, and the obelisk seemed more paganistic than patriotic. Standing on a bench near the base of the structure, I could see the Capitol far in the distance, the sparse crowds which would occupy much of President Trump’s attention for the near future stretched before me. The crowd seemed denser to my left, where a Jumbotron had been erected in front of the National Museum of African-American History.
I snaked through the sea of white people in ponchos, trying to center the screen between myself and the museum to really understand the symbolism of the moment. Mike Pence finished his oath and the crowd emitted an absent-minded, scattered cheer.
But the patience of the crowd was soon rewarded as Trump entered the screen. He put his left hand on the Bible held by his wife Melania, the width of her smile contradicted by the non-committal glaze of her eyes.
People around me were grabbing each other’s shoulders, whooping, bouncing on the balls of their feet. I headed for the exit as the biggest roar of all erupted from the crowd. I paused near the security checkpoint and glanced back. Trump’s face was framed by the great museum, bronze, latticed with patterns first designed by enslaved ironworkers in the South. It felt so cyclical, so obvious, so American, that this less-than-mediocre man would succeed the nation’s first black president.
I was tapped on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” a twenty-something year-old, acne-scarred man asked, with just a twinge of an Appalachian accent.
“Would you mind taking a picture of me and my friends with these guys?” He took the camo ballcap from his head and gestured back with it, to where a few white folks were chatting and laughing with the Satanists.
The pundits have called it: America is fractured. If that’s the kind of analysis that gets you on CNN, I’m underpaid. But what’s worse than the societal dissonance is the internal dissonance. The world we live in is paralyzing. Each news story is more horrible than the last, and each comes and goes quicker than the last, and despite commentators’ desperate pleas to not let any of this become “normalized”, the alternative is never finding normalcy, and we shut off.
The turning cogs have far too much momentum to stop, and if voters would choose to put Paul Ryan on a stage somewhere to dab over uncomfortable chuckles while they decide to buy food rather than medicine this week, it’s hard to imagine a way to change their minds.
I’ll participate in a rally once or twice a month if I don’t need to pick up groceries or already have plans to see a movie that night. I don’t read the news too much anymore either, just a few months after checking election odds on FiveThirtyEight thirty times daily. If staying engaged increases the size of a crowd by .1 percent while permanently raising my blood pressure and thinning my hair, it doesn’t feel like a tough choice. Throw in a non-zero chance that a nuclear holocaust is on the horizon? It’s a miracle I haven’t cleaned out my bank account on a bender yet. And it feels awful.
That’s the state of affairs today. The hallowed intelligence of mankind has never felt so paper thin, our modern elegance never so apeish. Into this environment, on April 7th, Father John Misty’s new record Pure Comedy will be released. Though four singles, “Pure Comedy”, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”, “Ballad of the Dying Man”, and “Total Entertainment Forever”, have already been released, I don’t want to speculate on them too much, especially since each feels like it would benefit greatly from the context of an album. But I do think, already, that it’s the perfect thesis for the moment.
One of the best looks inside the mind of Josh Tillman since he became Father John Misty was published on February 5, 2015. Pitchfork’s excellent profile of Misty and the process behind the making of the soon-to-be released I Love You, Honeybear contained a crucial insight into the new spirit that animated the record. While struggling to fix “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”, which was missing a certain essence, his wife Emma made him dial back the hedonism and satire and simply tell things the way they were.
I was trying to create this just kidding! bluster, trying to make this barter with myself, like, ‘I’ll let you be this exposed if you let me cloak these songs in giant, deranged, impenetrable Disney-orchestra arrangements.’ She told me that I needed to not be afraid to let the songs be beautiful. That that was a realization I needed to have…I had a real sense that there was a clock counting down the time, until I was going to expose this deep, sincere, profoundly excited, and joyful perspective on finding someone.
Speaking truth today is much like yelling at your dog not to eat that dead squirrel but it does anyway because it’s a dog and it throws up all over your doorstep and shits in your shoe an hour later. Your friends may shake their heads sagely in support, but in the end you’re just tired and grossed out and everyone is worse off because the dog is going to do what the dog is going to do.
So I don’t think at this moment in time, I need an artist to provide me a map of morality, nor to tell me it’s okay to lose hope and check out, or even to look out for me and mine at the sake of you and yours. I don’t need someone to distract me, to overstimulate me to the point that I can’t focus long enough to find meaning in this new landscape. I sure as fuck don’t need jokes.
I just need a soundtrack for this strange era, I need to know I’m not insane. I need something sincere, something that tells me yes, your Tweets and your emails and your phone calls and your chants are being screamed into the Echoplex. I keep coming back to the anxious first verse from the starkly beautiful “Ballad of the Dying Man”:
“Naturally the dying man wonders to himself: Had his commentary been more lucid than anybody else? 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!”
And then the chorus:
“Oh, in no time at all, this’ll be the distant past!”
It’s honest, it cuts deep. We’re well-meaning, we’re helpless, we’re hypocrites, and we’re all caught in a river which sprung from the earth long before any of us were alive to influence it. It’s why Pure Comedy has the potential to be the most relevant and vital pieces of art this year. It’s because the thesis of the record could very well be what Misty, and Tillman, has been digging deep to find ever since Fear Fun.
“Lately, I can’t stop the wheels from spinning.”