Fear Fun is the debut LP from Father John Misty, the latest project of former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman. It was written in what he describes as “an immobilizing period of depression,” driving down the coast with a van full of psychedelics and a head full of inner demons. And from a lyrical standpoint, it’s got some pretty glum stuff. Over the course of the record, Tillman expresses his desire to be punched in the face, get insanely high with his ex-girlfriends, break things “like Howard Hughes” and go to funerals strung out on Adderall.
But here’s the clincher: All of these grim wishes are wrapped up in some of the smoothest, slinkiest folk-pop songs to be released this year. “Nancy From Now On” sounds like vintage Fleetwood Mac, rife with soft percussion, clinking pianos and the honeyed harmonies that made Tillman such an asset to Fleet Foxes. He may be singing about getting belligerently, blackout drunk, but presented in such a demure musical context, the song becomes this beautiful, unsettling mix of catchy and caustic. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” takes a grungier approach but produces similar thrills: It’s a serious reflection on love, death and drugs but in the guise of a stomping powwow that’s impossible to resist. Even though Fleet Foxes fans will recognize the choral sensibilities and stripped-down production, the biggest influence here has got to be Hank Williams, especially in songs like “Well, You Can Do It Without Me” and “Tee Pees 1-12,” which employ the bluegrass instrumentation and sadness-tinged falsetto that were his signatures.
Tillman knows he’s being a downer. He even plays with us a bit on “Misty’s Nightmares 1 And 2,” with the deft couplet, “Gonna take my life/Gonna take my life back one day.” Some might listen to Fear Fun and hear a man feeling sorry for himself, but with melodies so sweet and sentiments so comically self-loathing, this album won’t suffocate you with sadness.