Father John Misty Is Undeniably Talented, but Is He Advanced?

A timeline of the folk-rock prankster's greatest acts of trolling and/or genius.

A journalistic cottage industry surrounds the work of Father John Misty, most of it dedicated to figuring out whether he's trolling us or not.

As evidenced on his three albums under the moniker, the talents of former Fleet Foxes drummer turned-folk rock love guru Josh Tillman are indeed undeniable. But it's becoming increasingly difficult not to wonder whether Tillman is becoming too smart for his own good.

We often find ourselves asking if he's a genius or a jackass. But what we really should be considering is whether Tillman is Advanced.

Hatched by pop-culture philosophers Jason Hartley and the late Britt Bergman, the Advanced Genius Theory provides a lens through which to view the often misunderstood work of artists the public historically writes off as having "lost it"—see such divisive works as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, or Bob Dylan going electric at 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Hartley and Bergman's 2010 book, The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time?, makes the argument that rather than being out of their minds, the genius of these historical figures has simply progressed beyond a point their fans can appreciate or comprehend.

Conversely, artists who are provocative for the sole sake of being provocative are Overt. It's entirely possible for artists to toggle between Advancement and Overtness many times throughout their career. To further assess Tillman's path to Advancement, here's a handy timeline of his actions, where they belong on the genius scale and where he might go in the future.


[Advanced] Tillman co-founds the post-rock band Saxon Shore. Post-rock has been sapped of all Advancement since Friday Night Lights made Explosions In the Sky a household name, but Tillman deserves credit for making his mark on the genre before the wave of crescendocore crested circa 2004.


[Overt] Takes up residence behind the kit for Seattle folk band Fleet Foxes. Aside from a tiff with David Crosby, who claims the band's reliance on soaring multi-part harmonies and tired Americana tropes is a direct ripoff of his work with CSNY, Fleet Foxes exist well outside the plane of Advancement.


[Advanced] Tillman quits Fleet Foxes, presumably because he has too much personality. If only we knew.

[Overt] Tillman goes to Big Sur, eats a bunch of mushrooms, gets naked, climbs a tree, then magically emerges with the alter ego Father John Misty. The media eats the story up, and his debut album Fear Fun is released to critical acclaim.


[Advanced] Feeds the media a promotional poster for New Winter, a "Christmas Neu-Jazz Double Album" that will be released, according to the poster, as a "limited edition prismatic hologram 6x LP on merlot and emerald semi-translucent 180 gram vinyl." The whole thing is a farce.

[Overt] Releases I Love You, Honeybear instead. The benign nature of the music is offset by lyrics that troll his predominantly urbane, upper-middle-class listener base, such as a chestnut in "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt." that describes his disdain for a one-night stand's improper use of the word "literally."

[Advanced] To show his distaste for Ryan Adams' song-for-song remake of Taylor Swift's hit album 1989, Tillman covers Adams' cover of "Blank Space" in the style the Velvet Underground. It's a known fact that Lou Reed is a paragon of Advancement.

[Overt] The cover is too meta for its own good, and Tillman removes it from the internet claiming Reed came to him in a dream and said, "Delete those tracks, don't summon the dead, I am not your plaything." This is a wimpy move on Tillman's part—if Reed were still alive, there's almost no chance he would even acknowledge Tillman's existence, let alone give him advice.


[Overt] In The New Yorker, Tillman details grandiose plans to promote his forthcoming album, Pure Comedy, claiming that "he was to appear onstage as Father John Misty playing the role of Josh Tillman, while the character of Father John Misty was to be played by a troupe of dancers." As Advanced as the concept was, Tillman again brays at the intensely meta nature of this form of self-deprecation, and abandons the production in favor of boring old club dates instead.

[Advanced] Father John Misty performs "Pure Comedy" and "Total Entertainment Forever" on Saturday Night Live, the latter of which opens with the line "Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift." Not exactly the Rage Against the Machine-caliber subversion, but edgy nonetheless.


[Advanced] It may be a death sentence considering they're zero-for-two with frontmen, but taking the helm of flagging post-grunge superstars Stone Temple Pilots could go a long way in bolstering Tillman's case for Advancement. We'd get a stellar cover of "Interstate Love Song" out of it, at the very least.


[Overt] Forms a hip-hop side project with Joaquin Phoenix.


[Overt] A retreat from public consciousness may be necessary for Tillman considering how intertwined his ironically unironic stance on social media is these days, but the line between Advancement and Overtness is very fine in any potential break from the public he may partake in. A migration to the Amazon to found an ayahuasca retreat for fellow Laurel Canyoners burnt out on fame would be Overt….


[Advanced] …while quitting music entirely and moving to Catalina Island to start a standup paddleboard academy would be Advanced. Only time will tell with this one.

Father John Misty plays Aug. 26 at 5:55 pm.

MusicfestNW presents Project Pabst is Aug. 26-27 at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Get tickets here.

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