All photos by Ben Stas for Vanyaland.
Father John Misty isn’t an easy guy to feel ambivalent about. Depending on who you ask, he might be 2017’s most infuriating thinkpiece provocateur, the poet laureate of cynical, beard-farming dudedom, or a man on a mission to snark harder than has ever been snarked before. He’s also one of folk rock’s most acclaimed characters in recent history, even if the man born Joshua Michael Tillman tends to overshadow his own talents through media-baiting, hyper-self-aware interviews, and doofy internet hijinks that elicit relatively extreme reactions.
“I hate him.”
“I love him.”
Or increasingly more often, “I hate that I love him.”
When he took the stage Wednesday night (September 13) at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion in Boston, it was with just a touch (a microdose, perhaps) of his usual meta-commentary, instead pushing the focus back on the music and showmanship that sparked his fame. His career has rapidly ascended since 2012’s Fear Fun took folk rock in weird and witty directions, but it was 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear that fully established the Misty image: Depressed and darkly funny, yet so wildly in love that it cast him as a bizarre symbol of romantic hope.
The album wound up near the top of many Best of 2015 lists and would’ve been a difficult act to follow by any measure, but with the release of Pure Comedy via Sub Pop this past April, he demonstrated that he wasn’t interested in taking the most obvious route to match its success. The resultant album was sprawling and ambitious, an hour-plus of mostly even-keeled, orchestral folk more focused on storytelling than the electronic flourishes and brasher guitars that energized much of Honeybear. It didn’t help that Pure Comedy suffered an awkward release timing; much of it was written in 2015 and explored a dystopian future that seemed inevitable to Misty even then, which he envisioned as the product of global warming, a culture preoccupied with entertainment, and assorted bleaker sides of human nature. It wasn’t a political album, but its combination of dystopian imagery and the spring 2017 release date nudged it into being read as a more pointed condemnation of the state of the country than originally intended.
As the first night of the tour, Wednesday night’s performance didn’t feature any overt messages, but did feel, in small ways, like a step toward steering the album’s public perception back toward its intended narrative. Misty opened the set with the LP’s title track, a note-for-note match to the album right down to the orchestra (a pared-down version of which was seated on stage to his right) against a backdrop of the cartoon characters familiar from the song’s video, marching across the screen calmly enough at first, but flying into a panic by the track’s end. He played the album’s next few tracks consecutively, against increasingly grim projected images: A family of skeletons sporting VR headsets, sitting on a couch; jagged landscapes rotating like circular saws, the earth engulfed in what might’ve been flames.
Just when it began to seem like he was preparing to play Pure Comedy straight through, he switched to the soulful, lusty I Love You Honeybear cut “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” and took a more theatrical turn, swaggering around the stage, falling to his knees, jousting with the mic stand. He carried on in that vein for much of the show, a back-and-forth balance between thoughtful balladry and delightfully gratuitous showmanship, with the former mostly leaving space for Pure Comedy material to breathe and the latter electrifying crowd favorites with extra rock energy. “Nancy from Now On” and “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” ramped up to singalongs immediately, but were unexpectedly matched in firepower by “Birdie,” one of Pure Comedy’s mellowest tracks, which erupted into a chaotic, strobe-lit rocker in the final verse.
Toward the end of the mostly light-on-banter performance, he paused and addressed the crowd. “Do you love me enough to listen to another album deep cut?” he asked. “Or is your love for me contingent on hit after hit after hit?” He strummed the simple opening of said deep cut — Pure Comedy acoustic ballad “The Memo” — to wild applause, then smirked: “Come on, this could be any of my songs.” Though it was an exaggeration, as he performed the rest of a setlist switching between Pure Comedy acoustic fare and dynamic standouts from his earlier albums, it became clear that he’d planned the lineup to intentionally avoid settling into any single groove.
Closing out the nearly two-hour set with the triple-whammy of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” “Real Love Baby,” and “I Love You, Honeybear,” he left the stage just briefly before reemerging to encore with “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” and a cataclysmic rock rendition of the ordinarily folk-toned “Holy Shit.”
While his ostentatious version of self-awareness might wear on some, there’s little arguing with its purpose in producing a spectacular live performance: Father John Misty can’t help but see himself in his own audience — and he just wants to give the audience what it wants.