On the second evening of his two-night-stand at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Father John Misty sang “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” early on in the show, as he does nearly every night on his current tour, and then confessed that, on the previous night, he’d blown a significant portion of the lyrics. At a loss to explain that uncharacteristic lapse, he attributed it to that particular song choice maybe being so on the nose that thinking about it kind of threw him a little.
If he were a more woo-woo kind of person, maybe he’d have attributed it to the assembly of local spirits messing with him, for daring to be so meta as to finally play a gig on the hallowed-grounds-turned-entertainment-venue he named a song after. (“We should let this dead guy sleep,” indeed? — to quote the tune.) But Father John is not that kind of mystic, as the audience would soon be reminded with a reading of “Pure Comedy,” his own epic anti-divine comedy, which doesn’t have a lot of use for magical thinking.
Still, the pairing of artist and setting had a synergistic quality, if not a spiritualist one. “It didn’t occur to me till last night, my first time playing in a graveyard, that my catalog has quite a serious body count,” he said. “We’re, like, five in, and quite a few dead.” That was after he opened a set full of short-story-like songs with “Q4,” a recent song about an ambitious novelist who profits from lifting ideas from the life story of her deceased sister, followed by the mentions of a burying a deceased grandpa in “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” further succeeded by “Chloë,” which ends with the effervescent starlet of the title throwing herself from her balcony.
Although Misty then promised that “nobody dies in this next song, but I think you’ll like it anyway,” there was more mortal business to come. In “Goodbye Mr. Blue,” one of the standout songs from his most recent album, “Chloë and the Next 20th Century,” it’s only a cat that perishes (sorry about the “only,” cat fans), mirroring the slow death of the relationship between its two defeated-feeling owners. That was by far the most poignant number of the night, even if Misty does throw in a “one down, eight to go” joke amid the otherwise sobering lyrics.
But the most brashly emotional selection here, as it is maybe in Misty’s whole catalog, was a death-preventative number. “I’d like to dedicate this next one to all the dead people,” he said. “It’s called ‘Please Don’t Die.’” The introduction may have been wry, but there was nothing less than earnest or passionate about the way he delivered this plea from afar to a loved one who is bottoming out in the depths of substance abuse or depression. The message: You’re needed here more than by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Johnny Ramone or anyone else staying behind when the gates are locked for the night.
Downer show? Noooo. If you think that, you don’t know Misty — or maybe you do because, admittedly, the material from the five albums he’s amassed over the last decade can be a little grim around the edges. Actually, it can actually be pretty peer-into-the-abyss, come to think of it, at its core. But he’s apt to climax with (in keeping with mortuary-speak) some “celebration of life” stuff. That can come in the form of “Holy Shit,” which Misty performed acoustically as his first encore song Friday, which lists a litany of everything that can and does go wrong in a fallen world and then adds, lovingly, “But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.” It comes in the love-among-the-ruins spirit of a rousing full-band song that almost always comes toward the climax of a show, “I Love You, Honeybear,” or one that sometimes does, “Real Love Baby.”
On “Chloë…,” the album he released early this year, Misty seemed to be developing a writing style that departed in a lot of ways from what he’s done in the past. The sweeping statements about the futility of human folly are mostly gone (except in the record’s closing number); so are the seemingly personal or confessional songs. He’s becoming more of a short-story writer, and although the dead-cat song is pretty self-explanatory — he joked that he was “going for universality” with that one — a few of the others are a little harder to fathom on first or even second listen. So it was helpful, for those who care, when Misty introduced the new “Buddy’s Rendezvous” by being about “a guy who gets out of prison and goes to visit his daughter and has some heartwarmingly shitty advice for her.” Well, of course it is … and knowing that extra bit of business actually helps make a case for Misty as more of an empathic guy than you might have figured, on top of his increasing inclination toward fiction.
The newish album has some of the best orchestral arrangements that have been put to a pop record in years, by Drew Erickson, and against all odds, those have been carried over to the tour, thanks to a string section and horn section Misty has taken out on the road with him. He’s brought strings along in the past, but they’ve never been more vital than they are on most of the new material — especially a song like “Chloë,” which harks back overtly to the 1940s, whatever decade it may take place in in Misty’s mind. (He admitted feeling stuck in a rut during the pandemic, and rhetorically asked the crowd whether anyone else filled the quarantine void by writing in the vein of “hot jazz.”)
In fact, it’s difficult to remember better small-orchestral arrangements ever being employed on stage by any pop artist, whether those came through with the ironic warmth of “Chloë” or for chills-down-the-spine augmentation of some of Misty’s quieter, icier numbers. One of those, “The Palace,” remains about as ominously beautiful, or beautifully ominous as pop music gets — and where better to hear a song with a bone-chilling refrain of “I’m in over my head” than in a cemetery?
The show may have been most remarkable for its unconventional use of orchestration, but Misty is not completely averse to giving an audience a few songs that have the hallmarks of a more standard-issue rock show. One of his more rocking numbers, “Date Night,” had gotten played the first night at Hollywood Forever, but not the second. (Misty mixes up the set lists; between the two nights at the venue, there were 14 songs that got played either one night or the other but not both, rewarding repeat attendees, of which there were obviously a few.)
The horns get emphasized on “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” which presents Misty as kind of a soul man. “True Affection,” a seven-year-old song he rarely plays, got an airing Friday and showed what he would be like as an EDM artist, although it’s a direction he seems less likely to follow now than ever, since he discovered since he’s now recording songs that sound closer to Benny Goodman than Benny Blanco. On the opposite side of the scale, he let a little extra guitar jamming proceed during an encore version of “I’m Writing a Novel” (“We’ve got time,” he exhorted, not running up against curfew like he did the previous night), to the point it could’ve been mistaken for a zesty Grateful Dead cover.
Misty had “Real Love Baby” on the set list Thursday as the closer, but ran out of time; he quit early Friday to make sure to get it in. The non-album track is an inevitable crowd favorite because it’s an anomaly in his catalog, as an unmitigated feel-good single. “I have no memory of writing this song,” he confessed over the roar of the band and the orchestra as they bought the tune in for a landing, apparently indicating that something so simple could only have come through automatic writing, or in a blackout. But especially in this setting, maybe he wasn’t about to deny a crowd a good bodily resurrection.
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