Photos By Ryan Kelly, Words By Jeb Gavin
David Niven, British actor and co-host of the 1974 Academy Awards was at one point interrupted by a streaker named Robert Opel during the telecast. Without missing a beat Niven said the young man would now only be known for “showing his shortcomings.” While it’s funny (frankly, hilarious) to think someone made a dick joke way back at the 1974 Academy Awards, it becomes ironic when you know David Niven was a buttoned up, debonair man known for personally and professionally being a consummate gentleman.
I bring this up because Father John Misty’s show at the 9:30 Club this past Saturday night was an excellent performance, but he constantly walks a fine line between irony and idiotic earnestness. The longer you attempt to balance on the razor’s edge between the two, the more the distinction does not matter. So has Father John Misty managed to become post-ironic, and why am I thinking about this on a Saturday night?
Irony is the subversion of the literal. So a giant faux-neon sign reading “No Photography” splashed across the outline of a heart hanging against a red velvet backdrop becomes irony when everyone (not literally everyone) in the room snaps a photo. But if nothing is literal -if every affectation, every glance, every aside is calculated as a smirk- the literal cannot be subverted. Ergo, no irony.
And this seems to be the complaint I hear most any time I bring up Father John Misty. Half the time friends recoil as though I tried to convince them a West Hollywood lounge singer was the next great literary voice. He’s too smug, too calculated in his nonchalance. They’re not wrong in that regard. Even flipping his acoustic guitar across stage is timed so his guitar tech is there to catch it. The mic dropping off the mic stand at the end of the set? Perfectly planned to hit on the last note of the song.
The dilemma felt all the more apparent after watching opener King Tuff. They look a bit like a three man version of Municipal Waste, but sound like Dinosaur Jr. on mood stabilizers. They have fun, and enjoy playing. They dedicated a song to local band and former tour mates Ex Hex and seemed earnest in doing so.
Contrast this with Father John Misty covering Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.” Given FJM’s latest album I Love You, Honeybear is largely about being a man trying to answer the question what do women (especially his new wife) want from him, is it even possible to earnestly cover a song Cohen himself said:
It’s a song that is a response to a question that has been perplexing men for 5 or 6000 years. That is the question:”What does a woman want?” I really was taken by this question, and I devoted twenty years of research to discovering what a woman wants and finally I didn’t find out what a woman wants and I abandoned the question. It is with a certain sense of vindication now that I see that women are asking the question “What does a woman want?” I feel now we are truly in the same boat. None of us knows what a woman wants. I myself have decided to abandon the inquiry. I have decided to surrender. I’m ready to be whatever I must be in order to deserve her voluntary caress. That is why I say without shame and unconditionally: I’m your man.
So yeah, when the violinist comes down front to play a keytar for “I’m Your Man” it’s a really good performance fun to watch. Likewise David Vandervelde tearing through some Duane Allman-when-he-was-in-the-Dominos guitar work during “Strange Encounter” is brilliant technically, but I’m intellectualizing the performance rather than just enjoying myself. When they slink through “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” I’m not thinking, “man, it sounds like he and his wife love one another or how magical it is for two people to find one another these days. Instead I’m wondering if the couple on the floor taking selfies at the just right angle so as to catch the “No Photography” backdrop will eventually walk down an aisle to a song that features the line, “I want to take you in the kitchen/lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in.” (Really though if that’s their song, it’s their song. It shouldn’t bother me, and yet I’m still trying to figure out why we keep trying to divine sincerity through funhouse mirrors.)
I want to have fun on a Saturday night like King Tuff, or feel as honestly as Leonard Cohen feels (even on a Saturday night.) As much as I enjoy Father John Misty’s writing, music, and his performance Saturday, there’s a growing air to his shows. Suddenly I’m trying to mentally parse the exploits of the grandson of J. Alfred Prufrock, who is coincidentally the only son of a lady’s man. I don’t want to spend my evening divining whether this is all some kind of Andy Kaufman-esque put-on, or is this the new David Niven making a dick joke.