by Pip Williams
“Planet cancer, sweet revenge,
Isolation, online friends”-Father John Misty, Holy Shit
I was listening a bit earlier to a recording of Father John Misty’s song “Holy Shit”, originally from his 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear, from his forthcoming live album Off-Key In Hamburg. I’m a big fan of the holy Father, and “Holy Shit” is probably my favourite of his songs- an anxiety-ridden litany of the issues facing a bride-and-groom to be, a list of worries both personal (“mobile lifestyle, loveless sex”) and political (“Age-old gender roles/Infotainment, capital”), which travels musically from understated acoustic guitar, through total atonal cacophony, finishing in glorious orchestral technicolor, an ecstatic burst of strings and choral “aah”s, the groom seeing the bride coming through the church doors, the future stretching out unsurely and gloriously ahead. Yeah, something like that.
In the last lines of the song, the narrator considers all the anxieties that have gone before, and all that are to come (“Maybe love is just an institution based on human frailty…maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity…”) and concludes, simply, with “But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.” The world’s ending, we are two humans participating in a potentially toxic structure with a life of uncertainty ahead- but what’s that got to do with how we feel?
Music’s always been interestingly placed to respond to times of crisis, and there’s a sort of feeling that it always should, that it has some kind of a duty to. I’ve always been interested and a bit baffled by this notion- after all, it takes quite a long time to make an album; a song written six months ago can suddenly take on a world of meaning the writer never intended, by dint of its release date; political specificity will date a song immediately, yet political vagueness runs the risk of making an artist seem out-of-touch, inconsequential.
And yet inevitably music does respond to crisis- because it is made and listened to by specific human beings at a specific moment in time, it has no choice but to accrue meaning and significance. A person will play a song at a certain time in their life or the life of the planet, and the song will inevitably end up soundtracking a moment, an event, a feeling. It will, whether intentionally or not, respond.
And that response might be as direct and explicit as Stormzy chanting “Fuck Boris”, or as indirect as The 1975 releasing a song screaming “we need to get this in our fucking heads” (just what we need to get in them is at best unclear, but the urgency is all with The 1975).
Or it could be as totally indirect as Father John Misty putting out a live album (the proceeds of which he’s donating to a Covid-19 relief fund for musicians). I’m not sure Father John (real name Josh Tillman) would consider himself an explicitly political songwriter- his last album, God’s Favourite Customer, was a predominantly introspective affair, often uncomfortably so, charting, as it did, a “misadventure” which left Tillman drunk and suicidal in a hotel room. But there is a certain atmosphere and mood to Tillman’s writing that seems to make him a quintessentially political musician, or at the very least a responsive and active voice in the discourse.
Indeed, Tillman has publicly berated himself for the apolitical nature of his earlier output, interrupting his own set at the XPoNential music festival in 2016 to comment: “…how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense? Like, I cannot play ‘Bored in the USA’ [a single from Honeybear] for you right now…I soft-shoed that shit into existence by going, ‘No no no, look over here, it’ll never actually be that bad because we’re too smart.’ And while we were looking in that direction, stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid! Do you guys realize that?”
And certainly after Honeybear the detached irony seemed to dissipate somewhat, to be replaced by a sense of profound hurt and baffled rage, a deep awareness of his position as an entertainer in an increasingly dark world, and a fierce, earnest protection of the idea of true love and companionship- “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got”, as he sings on the title track of 2017’s Pure Comedy. It’s not quite “Fuck Trump”, but it is a wholehearted rejection of apathy and of mindless misinformation, an urgent provocation to sit up and feel.
It strikes me then that in order for an artist to be politically responsive they have one of two choices- either to sum up an ethos, to provide a sort of commentary or digest on things and respond creatively to a mood; or to directly call for change, to actively incite action.
Take as an example of the former Everything Everything’s 2017 album A Fever Dream. Released in the wake of the twin cataclysms of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, and referencing in its lyrics the murder of Jo Cox, among other horrors, it seemed to me encapsulate perfectly a time of wild political uncertainty and disillusionment. It also came out just as I was leaving university, granting it a perpetual mythic status in my musical library, weathering, as I was, a fair dose of uncertainty and disillusionment myself. It’s a perfect example of how an album can tap into a zeitgeist, a pervasive mood, and become the sound, the articulation of that mood.
Lyrically, it seemed to move away from the surrealist, allusive stylings of their previous albums, away from lyrics about the Lone Ranger and Photoshop, and take on a darker, more experimental tone- phrases are repeated and distorted, swallowed in effects and noise, voices doubled and tripled and fed back eerily as if from a distance, like a rogue transmission from a crashing craft; the world it inhabited was one of roiling anger and terror, summed up by its troubling and oblique front cover, reminiscent of Bosch or Goya, a wheel of naked bodies writhing in what could be orgiastic hedonism or endless torment. Even on its poppier cuts, as on Can’t Do, with its yelped chorus of “Help me/I can’t do the thing you want”, it only seems to be using the angular beats and bubbling guitars to emphasise the dread and paranoia in the lyrics- buoyed by the musical flamboyancy, the horror rises to the top.
It always struck me as a powerfully political album. Coming out when it did, it seemed, to this writer at least, to perfectly articulate the mood of suspicion and generalised, often misdirected anger that I remember being so rife around then; the deep divisions exposed in this country and the U.S in the wake of the aforementioned cataclysms, the inherent suspicion of minorities, immigrants and “experts” revealed in the rhetoric of our politicians and in our online communities, and the general sense that we were entering a very, very dark epoch indeed.
Where Everything Everything’s previous output had been allusive, introspective, this seemed a far more explicit statement of political rage and intent; on Big Game, lyrics about “wrinkled little boxing gloves” and a “blood-blubber head” could seemingly only be read as referring to Trump (the good old days when we only had one global politician answering to that description); likewise on Ivory Tower (need I say more), lines like “We didn’t think that it would happen and we never will/Yeah I can’t think of nothing else but this machine” seemed to refer directly to our apathy, our lack of urgency in the polling booths- Josh Tillman’s “because we’re too smart” echoes in anguished response.
But the explicitly polemical, angry lyrics are mountains in fog, terrifying neon faces breaking through the gloom; what A Fever Dream comes across as more than anything is just that- a hazy, half-remembered dreamscape, an all-pervading atmosphere of terror and suspicion. “There’s somebody washing the car/And there’s somebody watching the children/But they’re nothing like you and me”, singer Jonathan Higgs trills on Put Me Together, in character as a curtain-twitching middle-Englander, terrified by the outside and a stranger to themselves. One of the album’s most moving cuts is New Deep, a short vignette based around a simple piano figure and the uncharacteristically laconic lyrics “Is there something wrong with all this?/Or is there something wrong with me?”
It is a political act to acknowledge fear; it is a political act to communicate terror; and it is a political act to examine your feelings in a certain climate (arguably in any climate). A Fever Dream is not an album with a plan, or a call to arms. It contains no orders, nor does it even explicitly name-check any of its targets. But it is still in my mind a valid and meaningful political response. When I listen to it I hear the uncertainty and despair of a generation; it is an atmospheric distillation of a very particular mood and time that I remember only too well, a time of terrible confusion and real horror at the news unfolding in front of us.
What A Fever Dream does is reflect the times back at us, an honest digest of a world that we are increasingly scared of. A slice of boiling rage at the stupidity and arrogance of our leaders, and a threnody for an increasingly atomised, introspective culture.
But it also takes time to reflect on how the human mind is changed by these times, what it means to live in such a culture, and on how that widespread cultural anxiety affects our roles within the body politic. In presenting us with a picture of the horrors of a world entering a troubled and divided era, it presents us with an ultimatum; do we join the ranks of the broken, the overwhelmed and the unthinking, the “pencil-pusher with the pencil-pusher blues”, reassure ourselves that “it’s only a dream”? Or do we look forward, see “dawn in your eyes”, take hold of love and rage and see our healing, our human, moral wellbeing as resistance in itself?
We cannot, after all, do more than what we can. We start with ourselves, with what is inside us and the people we fundamentally are. The first revolution is discovering exactly what it is that we can do.
As the final song says, in its closing moments, “Never tell me that we can’t go further”. Further into chaos? Or further into victory, into progress and peace? That is for us to decide.
As an example of the second type of response, the direct, polemical musical/artistic response, there are few cases clearer than Idles’ 2018 record Joy As An Act Of Resistance. Where A Fever Dream is atmospheric, a soundtrack to a mood, the sound that despair makes, Joy… is a clear and uncompromising call to arms, a heart-on-sleeve assault on toxic masculinity, racism and classism, among other things. It is loud, it is fast and it is direct- there is no question that yes, we’re talking to YOU.
There is little on Joy… that those with, ahem, certain political beliefs would enjoy.
“I put homophobes in coffins”, proclaims singer Joe Talbot on opening track Colossus.
“I don’t care about the next James Bond… we don’t need another murderous toff/ I’m just wondering where the high street’s gone”, he elaborates on I’m Scum.
Where A Fever Dream can be seen as a set of reflections, a sort of mimetic digest, Joy… is a far more active affair, a broadcast from the frontline. It is didactic and direct, and we’re in no doubt as to the opinions and politics of the artist. The response on the album is not to a pervasive mood but to specific mindsets and structures (be that fascism, Conservatism, racism) and each song is comprehensive and ruthless in its examination; it lets no one off the hook, especially not itself. Talbot’s spoken of how the first few tracks on the album are a reflection on a dark and violent period in his life- “I used to be a real piece of shit…I was surrounded by these really angry men and I wanted to reflect on how ludicrous it was”, he reflected in an interview with Kerrang! There is nothing smug or holier-than-thou about the album, and you get the feeling that its politics are born of hard, lived experience, of seeing the effect that harmful political and social mindsets can have on human souls.
Which isn’t to say it’s a Dostoevskyian slog through the underground. This is punk reborn, punk that’s kicked the habit and preaches in the town square with a Fender. On Danny Nedelko, Talbot tears into fear of immigrants and champions diversity, screaming “UNITY!” and spelling out “DANNY NEDELKO COMMUNITY SO FUCK YOU” in the middle eight. What it lacks in subtlety it certainly makes up for in clarity.
Meanwhile, on Television, he lays into the media’s portrayal of body image, particularly feminine body image, saying “If someone talked to you/The way you do to you/I’d put their teeth through/Love yourself!”
The album ends with a squall of noise, pounding drums and guitar feedback, while Talbot screams over the top “Fuck ‘em! Go! Smash it! Ruin it! Destroy the world!”
This is not a reflective album. It is an active one. These songs are marching orders, they are a set of rules and mantras to live by- Love yourself; change isn’t a crime; never fight a man with a perm.
And while the music itself on this album is incredible, all squelching bass, yammering guitars and pounding drums, its soul is in its lyrics and its sentiments. One could argue it covers similar ground to A Fever Dream, and certainly both seem to denounce a certain mindset, both are essentially albums about the dangers of apathy, mindless nationalism and fascistic ideology, but where Everything Everything parody and lament, Idles attack and snarl, and expect you to join in. You are with them or against them, and they make it extremely clear who is and isn’t allowed in their clubhouse.
It’s interesting that one of the pieces that I think best sums up the album’s intentions is a cover- Cry To Me, originally a Solomon Burke crooner standard, is given the sweating, snarling Idles treatment; “Here I am BOOOOY,” Talbot keens, like a friendly, slightly terrifying uncle at the end of a wedding, “Cry to ME!”
To express emotions, to communicate and be open with each other, is political. We dispel the panic and the hate through talking, through honesty and through love and peace with ourselves; as Talbot implies on NFAMWAP, violence comes from inner pain, comes from frustration and boredom. We resist through joy. We cry to each other. And then we smash stuff.
“But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”
There is of course a third option.
Obviously the albums I’ve talked about are in a way already dated, and reference a set of issues that have already faded into the background (or, for the most part, become so deeply embedded in the discourse that these responses seem tame). Obviously there are loads of artists releasing vitally political work right now, that responds in a variety of creative ways to the current climate and speaks to a vastly different audience, and I have merely chosen the above artists because I like them and listen to them a lot.
So how is music going to respond to the situation we find ourselves in right now? The worried, poor, lonely climate we’ve unexpectedly found ourselves in? Where music and art will undoubtedly play a part in so many people’s experiences, where so much music will be listened to, songs sung (on or off balconies), songs written, songs played to parents that they just don’t get yet (I CAN make my mum like Swans, I CAN)?
That’s why I think it’s an excellent thing that Father John Misty has released something now (not least because, again, I just like him a lot).
While the albums I’ve written about above are responses to specific political climates, respond more or less explicitly to political events and have as their objective, more or less, getting us the listeners, to sit up and use our feelings to effect broader change, Father John’s message is very much one we could do with hearing in the time of Covid-19.
In his songs, he very much takes the role of a man in the middle of a burning world, a narrator only too aware of the horrors of the modern age, as listed in Holy Shit, but hopelessly unable to separate that from his human feelings, unable to pretend that actually, really, love isn’t more important- “Everything is doomed/And nothing will be spared/But I love you, Honeybear”, he sings on the title track of I Love You, Honeybear.
Because the third way that music can respond is to remind us that, yes, things are bad, things are very bad. But fundamentally we are humans, with hearts and souls; we do what we can, and we feel as we do. Which is not to say that we shrug and say “Oh well”. But love and friendship and feelings are important. As said before, knowing ourselves is the first revolution. “We’re only people,” as Father John sang on his last album, “and there’s not much anyone…can really do about that.”
We have been dumped into a terrible situation that none of us has any control over. We are overwhelmingly uncertain; we are unemployed; we are depressed; we are far away from our families and loved ones; we are chronically touch-starved and running out of things to watch on Netflix. And we are powerless, most painfully. Yes, there will again be a time to “Smash it! Ruin It!”, there will again be a time to “go further”, but it’s hard to do those things under house arrest.
What we do have control over, though, is our hearts. We have control over who we love, and how we tell them we love them. We have control over how we check in with friends, and how we tell them what they meant and continue to mean to us. We have control over how we tell our families that we’re grateful for them. We have control over how we tell people we miss them, and all the things we’ll do when we’re back together again.
I’m not trying to be airy and hippy about this- I am as anxious and furious as the next guy, and I’m more than aware that there are many who don’t have the luxuries I’ve outlined above, the luxuries of communication, of health, of friends and family to say all this stuff to, people to check in on them, people who’ll be glad to see them on the other side.
But we have to be grateful for what little control that we do have. And at a time where we’re all powerless, let’s focus instead on making this scary world a little less scary for the person next to us (or down the phone/street/world from us).
To finish, the final words from Misty’s last album, God’s Favourite Customer:
“I think the end of it all may look a lot like the beginning
Passed around from hand to hand
Screaming for no particular reason
The company gets pretty thin
So we start to shed all our distinctions
So why not me?
Why not you?
Why not now?”