On a personal note…with Zapruder Point’s Dan Phillips

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“Holy Shit” by Father John Misty

Dan Zapruder Phillips

The story goes that Joshua Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, wrote much of the material for his album I Love You, Honeybear as a way to deal with his anxiety around his impending marriage to photographer Emma Garr. I usually try to resist paying attention to an album’s hype/lore, but with Honeybear the backstory seems to track. Early on, it captures the giddiness of new love (the title track and “Chateau Lobby #4”), then twists into a crisis of self-doubt on the later tracks (“The Ideal Husband,” “Bored in the U.S.A.”). Along the way, Tillman guards against sentimentality by deftly pushing aside other women (“Why the long face, Blondie? I’m already taken”) and throwing sailor-praise towards his bride-to-be (“Gets down more often than a blow-up doll”). The profanity is funny but fitful, a white-knuckle bid to “keep shit real” as our hero closes in on settling down.

Then there’s “Holy Shit,” without a doubt the album’s centerpiece and my first exposure to FJM. On Honeybear, it appears after the aforementioned crisis, a comparatively calm meditation in the wake of all that worry. Over a simple folk strum, Tillman spits a deluge of cynical platitudes and cheap buzzwords mixed with purple imagery (“Age-old gender roles / Infotainment, capital / Golden boughs and mercury / Bohemian nightmare, dust bowl chic”). (You could say it’s the kind of “listy” structure Alanis Morrissette got so much grief for using in the 90’s. Maybe she’d have gotten less shit if she’d called it “stream-of-consciousness” — or if she’d been a dude. But I digress.)

The antidote to all this lyrical runoff is in the refrains, where a wonderful resolution occurs. The first two times around, Tillman lays out the bleakest non-sequitur so far: “No one ever knows the real you and life is brief.” But he follows it with: “So I’ve heard, but what’s that gotta do with this black hole and me?” (The second time it’s an atom bomb instead of a black hole, but you get the idea.) To me, it’s like he’s trying to brush off all these detached, fatalistic concepts that as a thinking person in America he can hardly help but hear…but really doesn’t want to follow. The last lines of the song ditch the “black hole” stuff, with Tillman finally delivering his quiet epiphany to an audience outside his own head:

Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty

What’s your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?

Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity

What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me

And so “Holy Shit” reveals itself as a love song after all — one that resonates with me deeply even though my wedding was held over a decade ago. I’ll try to explain why.

“Holy Shit” came into my life maybe eight or nine months ago, just as I was preparing for a Life Event a little further down the road from marriage — the adoption of my first child, Archer. Having your first kid is of course exciting in its own right, but leading up to it I never imagined how strangely romantic it could be. It felt like an oblique renewal of wedding vows, this commitment on a whole new level — and it came bundled in a similar webbing of nerves. Just like when we planned our wedding a decade ago, during our months of nursery-preparation and baby-supply-gathering, Amy and I oscillated between wondering just what the hell we were doing…and knowing it exactly.

And so my catch-phrase list may be different from Tillman’s — mixing friends’ promises of miracle and misery, horror stories from parenting blogs, and calm insights from Smart Love — but I borrow his conclusion happily. Maybe having a kid is a misguided attempt to stave off mortality. Or maybe it’s a subconscious way to avoid the hard work of finishing your novel/album/script. Worst of all, maybe it’ll turn you into a mere zealot for the cult of parenting itself, boring your child-free friends and sharing interchangeable platitudes with your friends who have children.

But aren’t all of these possibilities platitudes in and of themselves? It’s so easy to lump together all the outside stories, all the stories that aren’t your own, make them uniform and section them off. But look closely and you’ll see that all the narratives are unique, and that the best (or certainly the most accessible) example of this is your own. So what do all these predictions have to do with you and me? With Amy and me? With Amy, Archer and me? I fail to see it — and it’s a relief.

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