Father John Misty, Dirty Projectors, Mount Eerie, and Sun Kil Moon Find New Ways to Write About Pain

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Through artists like Mount Eerie and Father John Misty, a new style of songwriting emerges. Photo: Getty Images

Songwriting is a competitive sport without a rule book, where every lyricist moves a crowd through different means. There are realists who wring pathos from hard truths and fantasists who achieve meaning through the breathtaking subversion of reality. There are scribes like Leonard Cohen, whose best songs brimmed with the heft and myth of epic poems, and ones like Taylor Swift, who once described her experiential approach as “the ultimate form of being able to make anything that happens in your life productive.” A handful of this year’s most anticipated works have carried Swift’s method to its logical conclusion, breaking through the comforting air of conjecture that renders her most personal songs both relatable and hard to pin to their specific subjects, offering direct access to the discomfiting real world tumult quaking underfoot. As literature, the lyrics from new albums by Sun Kil Moon, Father John Misty, Dirty Projectors, and Mount Eerie read like intercepted social-media posts, devoid of writerly conventions like character growth and neat resolutions. The conflict is the focus, not the trek past it. Like an Instagram or Snapchat missive, each song offers a shot of that moment and little else. As such, each record lives or dies on the merits of the person telling the stories and the magnitude of the moment they’ve documented. Social-media-sharing rules apply across platforms: Telling all your business won’t turn heads if your business is a bore.

Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek is a 50-year-old rock lifer whose 2012 album Among the Leaves is patient zero for the present state of indie-rock confessionalism. Kozelek had been the field’s patron saint of crushing sadness since his seminal slowcore act Red House Painters yielded lengthy, brokenhearted guitar workouts on classics like Red House Painters and Songs for a Blue Guitar. Among the Leaves candidly depicted middle age on the deceptively upbeat “Sunshine in Chicago”: “Sunshine in Chicago makes me feel pretty sad / My band played there a lot in the ’90s, when we had / Lots of female fans, and fuck, they all were cute / Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes.” The next song, “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man,” got bitter: “One day you’ll be forty / And trust me, babe, it ain’t sporty / You’ll be pleased to be reviewed / Cause there’s always something new.” After that, Kozelek’s writing assumed the form of Dust Bowl folkies’ talking blues, working men rattling off personal trials for solidarity’s sake. 2014’s excellent Benji, a grisly catalogue of the unexpected deaths of family and friends, was an achievement on these grounds.

Critical acclaim under the warm spotlight of music-blog scrutiny suited Kozelek poorly, though, and he lashed out in a series of increasingly grueling spats with journalists and other musicians. His transparency as a writer made it tough to extricate the music from the man and his controversies; the angrier he got, the greater chance his songs stood of becoming a pulpit for it, as exhibited on “The War on Drugs: Suck My Cock,” a seven-minute diatribe about a time his hushed, acoustic live show got drowned out by the Philly psych band’s wall of guitars at Hopscotch Fest in 2014. A similar moment happens on “Philadelphia Cop,” off this February’s Common As Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood, as Kozelek flips from news reports on mass murders and rock stars dying to brutal put downs for millennials (“You got the brains to be the next Norman Mailer / You got the longevity to be the next Elizabeth Taylor… / But you are sitting on the toilet staring at your phone like a perfectly tailored, made-to-order puppet) and music critics (“Let me ask you: Do you own your own story? / Being pimped the fuck out like a pay-for-a-hoe”).

The rest of the album is decidedly more kind, but for every chilling, ripped-from-the-headlines cut like “Bastille Day,” there’s a winding story like “Sarah Lawrence Song” that pleasantly goes nowhere. Classic talking blues might wander, but it’s always in service to a deeper point being driven home, and Common As Light’s two-hour stream of diary entries, bits of mail, and cable-news dispatches doesn’t arrive at one as often as it ought to. For a guy who rails against smartphone obsessives as much as he does, Mark Kozelek mirrors their creative habits. Common As Light is the foodie friend who posts pictures of every meal, whose fluctuations in quality suggest that not every day’s events are important enough to share.

If Koz’s latest resembles zealous Instagram documentarians, indie-rock scribe and budding pop session man Dave Longstreth’s recent Dirty Projectors album is the buddy whose Facebook account grows unnervingly austere after a bad breakup. The sharpest lines on the album, which can read like a deposition on Longstreth’s split with partner and collaborator Amber Coffman, make for withering status updates: “You made me feel like maybe love is competition.” “Our love is a death spiral.” It takes a certain brutishness to deliver Kozelek and Longstreth’s harsher words to audiences able to easily parse the intended targets, and to not care what anyone does with that. This is not the same windswept sense of vindication a Taylor Swift expresses when she writes a song like “I Knew You Were Trouble.” These aren’t your standard kiss-offs; the insistence on clearing the air on record crosses from catharsis into pettiness.

Father John Misty frequents this crossroad. The singer-songwriter spent a decade gigging around as drummer for the post-rock outfit Saxon Shore and new folk luminaries Fleet Foxes while crafting a series of serviceable, ramshackle solo albums under his birth name, Josh Tillman. The Misty creation myth — the former evangelical Christian speaks of his creative gear shift with a fervor that has triggered more than a few “Gospel of Father John Misty” pieces — begins with Tillman quitting Fleet Foxes, then on to a mushroom trip in Big Sur and an epiphany about the importance of irony. Later, he ditched the cloudy, pastoral folk of his eight solo albums and embraced a pairing of biting gallows humor and widened instrumental palettes reminiscent of cult-pop and folk-rock gems like Harry Nilsson’s Aerial Ballet and Loudon Wainwright III’s Unrequited.

Unlike Nilsson and Wainwright, who both seemed like dark guys flipping pain into laughs, Father John Misty stays switched on. He plays a room as much as any instrument: Last month alone, he pranced and thrashed for the camera on Saturday Night Live, released a string of smirking “generic pop songs,” criticized Pitchfork for an hour and a half during an interview with an editor, and sailed bullshit answers at silly questions from the stiff, chipper hosts of BBC Breakfast. Misty’s media presence feels specifically designed to disorient, but this week’s Pure Comedy is a subtle refinement of the experiment. The last two albums’ mix of irony and questioning earnestness finally settles in the new one’s title track, where songwriting conventions like rhyme and repetition come and go as he breaks down all his logical objections to creationism. “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” drafts a post-apocalyptic planet with the conversational ease of sci-fi humorist Douglas Adams: “It got too hot, and so we overthrew the system.” Naturally, life is much quieter without corporations and computers.

Pure Comedy also gestures at the panoramic snark of satirical concept albums like Randy Newman’s scalding Good Old Boys, which criticized Southern culture by painting many of its simple concerns as jingoist and cosmically absurd, but Father John Misty is ultimately too heavy-handed, overarching, and overbearing to compare. A better analogue for this album’s flurries of didactic speech is Creighton Bernette, the struggling author turned viral vlogger from HBO’s post-Katrina New Orleans drama Treme, whose frustrations with the city’s lagging reconstruction boil over in a crass, ineloquent viral video that ends up revitalizing his literary career. Comedy races like a vlogger’s unchecked ideological filibustering, one man’s analysis of why he thinks the institutions we’ve awarded power over our society are, in fact, worthless.

The existential coup Misty attempts over Pure Comedy’s 75 minutes is won 30 seconds into “Real Death,” from the Northwest lo-fi folk project Mount Eerie’s new A Crow Looked at Me: “Death is real: Someone’s there, and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art.” What follows is a string of musings on the illness and passing of Mount Eerie leader Phil Elverum’s wife and creative partner Geneviève Castrée, who he lost after a yearlong bout with pancreatic cancer following the birth of their daughter. Each song depicts a rough spot in Elverum’s drive to push forward through grief while preserving Geneviève’s memory. “Do people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” “My Chasm” muses. “I now wield the power to transform a grocery aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion and mutual aching to leave.” “Emptiness, Pt. 2” pines for days when sad songs were merely literary exercises: “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about back before I knew my way around these hospitals.”

Crow’s void is so all-consuming that even time is a blur. Every thought trails off before it stays too long, like unfinished business. One day you’re here, and then you’re gone. Songs mark off when they were written in relation to Elverum’s tragedy like journal entries, some surfacing days afterward and others coming to in the months that followed, but the album’s uniform bleakness suggests that bereavement is more than just some methodical march to okayness. Working under a pall of grief sounds like nightmarish business, but Elverum speaks of this writing experience as a necessary act of therapy: “I just wanted to get it out as fast as possible,” he told Noisey last month, “because I knew the feelings were prickly and raw and fresh. I wanted to package them up and get them out of me and get them away.”

Crow is megatons heavier than Common As Light cuts like “Window Sash Heights” and “Sarah Lawrence College Song,” which recount stories of fear and death with chronological specificity but only to recall a week when Mark fretted about bad press before a good gig and plotted a night in a deceased serial killer’s favorite room at Los Angeles’s Cecil Hotel. Darkness only enters his purview when it does now because he loves true crime and lacks a filter. It’s an intellectual pursuit, like in Pure Comedy’s “Ballad of the Dying Man,” whose titular dying man blows his final breath refreshing Twitter, because Misty wants us to know what happens when you get too caught up in internet ephemera to live in the moment. But real, dark, challenging frankness should feel pained and possibly embarrassing. If you come out looking cool, you might be doing it wrong.

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