A Toast to the Drunken Clergy
So there’s this man. He’s a troubled man, but then most of us are. Someone once told me never to trust a man who has no troubles. Actually, that’s a lie. Nobody ever told me that, though sometimes I wish they had, because I’m fairly sure it’s true. Anyway. There’s this troubled man. He’s burdened with this faith in something bigger than himself, and with his alcoholism, and with the expectations not just of his loved ones (who, in fact, have learnt not to expect anything at all) and also those of people he has never met.
The Whisky Priest in Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory is perhaps my favourite literary figure of all. He’s such a beautifully realised character that – like all the truest fictional people – he can only be born from someone real. The Whisky Priest is this deep and troubled man who, rather than pretend he has no flaws, approaches them with an honesty only the bravest of us could offer.
I don’t know why it is, but I am reminded of the Whisky Priest whenever I listen to the debut album of Father John Misty. Fear Fun, released by former Fleet Fox J. Tillman on do-no-wrong label Bella Union. Perhaps it’s just the fact that Tillman sings under the name of a clergyman, and sings songs of dark vices (the video for lead single ‘Nancy From Now On’ features Father John’s mistress and more than enough evocation of his sexual misgivings).
More likely though, is the confessional nature of the record – Tillman throws himself around into honky-tonk folk songs that you can only hope were half as cathartic for him as they sound to the listener. He wants to smoke with every girl he’s ever loved on ‘Funtimes in Babylon’, expresses uncertainty and fear in ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery’. As a record, it feels like therapy – a stream-of-consciousness release of thoughts and desperation. It’s beautiful. And it feels all or nothing.
‘Gonna take my life’, he sings. ‘Gonna take my life back one day.’
It’s hard not to believe him or, at least, not to want to believe him. The album, all harmony and introspection, echoes in so many ways Tillman’s background with Fleet Foxes, but is so much darker and – most importantly – much more coherent than the band’s most recent effort. Where Helplessness Blues was a invigorating but often fragile mess of ideas, Fear Fun is a more purposeful record where each song’s troubles lead directly through to the next.
But then, this was always why I loved the Whisky Priest so much. He was a troubled man, a flawed man. His vices were hated by the state (alcohol, religion for the Priest, casual sex and drug abuse for the Father), and he was in many ways completely separate from the culture that had birthed him. But he was a real man, and he was an intelligent man, and he was a man you wanted to listen to. All hail Father John Misty, the Whisky Priest.