Out of all the albums in my collection, I can count the number of live releases on two hands. I find that the feedback loop between crowd and band, creating a spontaneous, one-of-a-kind energy, often becomes lost in a recording. Extended middle sections, requiring a joint to sound engaging, compete with extended sequences of masturbatory applause between songs.
When Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, dropped the surprise live album Off-Key in Hamburg on March 23, I gave it a chance for several reasons. Recorded with Orchestra Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt, the release is a benefit for MusiCares’ COVID-19 Relief Fund, established to assist peers in the music community affected by the pandemic. Applause sequences were kept to a delightful minimum (mostly, at least). And hey, almost none of us will attend live concerts for a while, so Tillman and company may have to tie us over.
Of course, one could make a case that Father John Misty is a fitting donor for a soundtrack to a pandemic. “9 out of 10 of my songs are about the end of the world,” he mentioned during an interview with the Scandinavian talk show Skavlan a couple years ago (A rock-star-interview exaggeration? Perhaps, but not by much). Off-Key in Hamburg contains material from all four Father John Misty studio albums, which means the release’s lyrics form a stream of troubling observations and images: a boat capsizing, a satanic Christmas Eve, a comparison of burgeoning love to a carcass left out in the heat.
That also means that humanity is in the hot seat. Tillman performed several tracks from his Grammy-winning 2017 release Pure Comedy that serve up such reflections as “When you question their sacred texts / Written by woman-hating epileptics / Their languages just serve to confuse them” and “There’s no place for human existence like right here / On this bright blue marble orbited by trash.” But, all things considered, that’s “Not bad for a race of demented monkeys.”
Off-Key in Hamburg follows the studio recordings closely, yet some spin off a curious freshness. The philharmonic treatment of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” bestows the heavy-footed indie rock track with an anthem-like grandness that normalizes Tillman’s fearless fascination with death. Meanwhile, on the live versions of “Hangout at the gallows” and “Things it would have been helpful to know before the revolution,” the strings’ melancholy pleadings are less gentle and more prominent, more quivering, casting a spotlight on Tillman’s unsettling lyrics of the former (“I’m treading water as I bleed to death”) and the latter (“But what a perfect afternoon / Industry and commerce toppled to their knees”). Tillman’s borrowings from French singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg reveal themselves proudly on Off-Key in Hamburg, with snarly guitar and rising orchestral blooms that echo the seductive doom of Gainsbourg’s Melody Nelson.
Those seeking an escape from Tillman’s subtly amusing darkness may find relief in the eccentric and forgetful hotel guest in “Mr. Tillman,” a track from God’s Favorite Customer that sees its unhurried gait become buoyant and nod-worthy on stage in Hamburg. Don’t give up before you hear “I Love You, Honeybear,” whose atmosphere of drunken burlesque provides a catchy platform for demonstrating that, in the throes of apocalypse, love can still prevail. “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with,” Tillman announces. “The future can’t be real … / Unless we’re naked, getting high on the mattress / While the global market crashes,” he continues, and finally, “Everything is doomed / And nothing will be spared / But I love you, honeybear.”
As with many live recordings, the loss of intimacy on the quieter songs’ tender underbellies is unfortunate. But whether Tillman’s songs are live or not, the end result is the same: we don’t even feel the music prodding us and guiding us along, like the hands of a veteran pickpocket. As we float through the murky depths of Tillman’s thoughts, we briefly forget stuff like running out of facemasks and avoiding human contact. Thus, we briefly trade our unnerving landscape for Tillman’s. I know which one I prefer.