Photo by Nicholas Ashe Bateman

Papa Don’t Preach

Acclaimed indie songwriter Father John Misty performs in Eugene

Musician Joshua Michael Tillman, performing as Father John Misty, is among the most inscrutable figures to emerge recently in indie music. Behind the 2022 full-length album Chloë and the Next 20th Century and the EP Buddy’s Rendezvous, also from this year, the one-time Fleet Foxes drummer performs Aug. 23 at the McDonald Theatre in Eugene.

The Buddy EP features another noted re-interpreter of the 20th-century American pop songbook in her own image, Lana Del Rey, covering Misty’s tune “Buddy’s Rendezvous.”

A weird mix of ’70s folk-rock troubadour and ’60s-era psych-rock guru, Misty’s music references everything from pre-rock pop standards to waltz-time Tin Pan Alley classics with nightclub pianoman atmosphere and jazz flourishes thrown in. 

Through heavily ornamented and anachronistic song arrangements, there’s something of the Tom Waits-ian carnival barker and old-timey showman in Misty. The song “Chloë” itself is a richly orchestrated, double-time, Cole Porter-style jazz update. Where Waits is all gravel, though, Misty’s mysterious tenor often soars into falsetto. Witty and erudite, his songs are populated with “borough socialists” in therapy-prescribed Benzedrine — not for some urban mid-century neurosis but, as a wry punchline, for shoplifting.

The character the songwriter plays throughout his work is the lonely, mad pop composer with a capital “C”: Burt Bacharach, Harry Nilsson or Brian Wilson, for example. The Sub Pop recording artist is a dab hand at the bon mot in songs like “Chloë,” when at a point of climax he sings, “Her soul is a pitch-black expanse.” And from “Buddy’s Rendezvous,” there’s “What’s the fun in gettin’ everythin’ you want?” Those are words with which Babs Streisand could steal the show and which, in her cover version, suit Del Rey’s sad-starlet schtick to a T.

On that note, Misty even does his own rueful take on classic Broadway on Chloë with a song he’s bravely also called “Funny Girl,” a passable alternate timeline version of the Streisand classic. But just when you pin Misty down, he’s gone again. “Goodbye Mr. Blue” could be Gordon Lightfoot or a countrypolitan singer-songwriter like Glen Campbell. The song “Q4” has ’60s pop-style harpsichord and strings, and “Olvidado (Otro Momento)” references the bossa nova revival from that same decade. 

Altogether, it’s a melodramatic libretto for showtunes that seem to exist in Misty’s mind only, a place where Misty plays the main character, a preacher-like figure, proselytizing for the built environment of the mid-20th-century pop star as a truly American invention. 

Appearing with Misty in Eugene is English model, actress and musician Suki Waterhouse, performing a much more straightforward take on contemporary guitar pop. She’s touring in support of her 2022 album I Can’t Let Go and follow-up single “Good Looking.” Both are out now on streaming services. ν

Father John Misty performs with Suki Waterhouse 8 pm Tuesday, Aug. 23, at the McDonald Theatre; $44.99, all-ages.