June 12, 2020

AUDIENCE WITH THE GUY (profanity alert)

Humor and Humility in the Music of Father John Misty (Alisa Ruddell, 6/11/20, Christ and Pop Culture)

Tillman's humiliating confessions are just as much his musical trademark as his humor. While his earliest confessional songs on Fear Fun contain more romp and revelry than regret, his later, more mature songs are an invitation to empathy and grace. The good exists as a shadow cast by his misadventures, failures, and parable-parodies. He seldom sings directly at the good, but manages nevertheless to conjure an image of it, however obliquely. Whatever the good is, it's not what I just did last night. Whatever love is, I'm terrible at it. Whatever wisdom is, it's something better than my intellectual sarcasm. And as soon as he's caught in the act of caring deeply in an interview, he'll interrupt himself with an ironic comment or smirk, putting that tenderness in brackets to keep the sacred at bay. He has a love of truth, goodness, and beauty, but he's somewhat shy about it, and his constant humor protects him from the accusation of sentimentality. 

Tillman reveals the worst of his character in his musical stories, while the best of him--his voice and melodies, his insight, humor, and writing--frames his failures with beauty. In "Leaving LA", a 13 minute folk hymn in which he walks through his fears and failures, he is accompanied by strings so tender, it's like hearing the voice of God's forgiveness in real time, responding to each confessional offering. Framing ugliness with beauty is more authentic for Tillman than framing beauty with an ugly, failed effort (e.g. fluffy pop music created by committee to be lucrative and radio-ready, but it's about God, and meant to be taken seriously). In his mind it's better to be genuinely sordid (but honest) before the sacred, than to produce kitsch in its honor without realizing it. In the words of philosopher Roger Scruton,

Real beauty can be found even in what is seedy, painful, and decayed. Our ability to tell the truth about our own condition, in measured words and touching melodies, offers a kind of redemption from it.... If we can grasp the emptiness of modern life, this is because art points to another way of being.... It describes what is seedy and sordid in words so resonant of the opposite, so replete with the capacity to feel, to sympathize and to understand, that life in its lowest forms is vindicated by our response to it.

Tillman sees the inescapable ambivalence of the human experience: it's pure comedy and horrific tragedy at the same time, an insight drilled into him at the age of six in JC Penney's. And he isn't out to solve this mystery; in his view, music is "not a delivery system for answers, or to make complex issues less complex." He doesn't resolve the questions his songs raise; he lets them sit and (depending on your perspective) fester or bloom. The goal, though, is that you let the question grow into something meaningful and transformative. To encounter his more serious songs is to allow them to trouble you. His Job-like rebuke of the Almighty in "When the God of Love Returns, There'll Be Hell to Pay", is one of his most beautiful and troubling explorations. "Being someone who cannot get Christianity out of my system--I no longer even really want to--it's an intimate thing to question God," Tillman says. "If this is truly my maker, and I have an audience with this guy in the way that Christianity claims I do, am I limited to a certain conversation? Are there talking points I have to run through or can I have an intimate conversation with my God?"

And this is why--no matter his graphic language, depression-stoked benders, and religious satire--he still orbits Christianity with a gravity he can't escape. His critiques and questions show how deeply he values truth and genuine human connection. When he mocks religion, and Christianity in particular, it's largely because he assumes all people actually worship themselves, and pious religiosity can blind a person to the gods they really serve. He's not criticizing the church for worshiping God; he's criticizing them for worshiping themselves without knowing it. It's the oblivious phoniness of idolatry that he can't stand, not the idea of God per se. Tillman has many cutting remarks about the church, and many piercing questions for God, but he hopes Christians would be relieved, grateful even, that at least someone is talking about these issues.

Posted by at June 12, 2020 7:19 AM