Presented with Comment - Who is Today's Best Lyricist?
It is time for our Sunday piece, Presented with Comment, where each week Michael and Nicholas La Torre take a turn engaging in a debate over alt topics of interest and gauging the audience's views on the issues at hand. To do this, the authors will present examples to support their opinions and not only get the audience's view on the two sides presented, but seek feedback from the audience on alternatives as well.
Morrissey, Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, Thom Yorke...Alternative has a rich history of lyricists in its time. We wanted to examine who in our opinion is the best lyricist in alt music today. Michael drew the short straw so he gets to go first here.
This was an extremely tough decision, as there are a number of extremely talented songwriters out there operating today. I at one moment almost called Nick and asked, "Can't we just have like three people each???" That's how much I did not want to be pinned down on this one; however, that's the name of the game here. So if I had to pick just one, I believe that the best lyricist operating today is none other than Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman).
Father John Misty:
This is not going to contain a bio of Father John Misty, because that is an entire feature in itself (and a whole lot on how it took him embracing a moniker to actually be himself in his music. That's another article for another day). I want to highlight a few things overall that helped me arrive at my opinion that Father John Misty is today's best alt lyricist. I will utilize three of Father John Misty's songs to highlight my points.
Traditional Song Structure...What?
Traditional song structure dictates an intro, verse, pre-chorus (usually), chorus, repeat, and so on until the bridge. Father John Misty understands this, but doesn’t necessarily care and does what he wants with great success. There are some bands out there that are such die hards to verse/chorus song structure that you can tell where the track is going without ever having heard it. That’s obviously not good. While Father John Misty writes some songs that follow traditional structure, he’s not afraid to buck the system either. Its worth pointing out that there’s another extreme as well, it’s called Judas Priest “The Ripper”. It just shows that.
Anyway, Father John Misty doesn’t have to hang his hat on predictability. He mixes it up quite often. For example, in his song, “Total Entertainment Forever,” which appears on his 2017 release Pure Comedy, he blasts off like a bat out of hell straight into the "hook," if you want to call it that. After this, there is a bridge and just like that, the track is over. The entire song is just a hair under three minutes long (the music video is also extremely interesting if you haven't seen it, it's a great accompanying piece to the track). He also uses non-traditional song structure in "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.," and "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings." In these, he opts for a verse/bridge structure and a verse/outro structure respectively. If you were to tell someone an artist could make so many great tracks without employing a traditional chorus structure, do you think they'd be skeptical? Misty gives us reason to have faith.
More for Your Money
One of Father John Misty's signature skills is fitting a lot of text into seemingly impossible spaces for such words to go. For example, in "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.", Misty sings:
"Of the few main things I hate about her One's her petty, vogue ideas Someone's been told too many times they're beyond their years By every half-wit of distinction she keeps around And now every insufferable convo Features her patiently explaining the cosmos Of which she's in the middle."
This is clearly a mouthful of lyrics; however, it's important to note he doesn't do this solely for hubris (though it's definitely part of the attraction). He's brilliantly driving the narrative forward here. He does this through second-to-none timing and cadence in his vocals.
Biting, Witty, Double-Meaning, Filled Lyrics:
Some people might not like it, but I feel Father John Misty is at his best when he's criticizing something. He has such a knack for poking.
In short, he's funny and he knows he's funny. He has a stinging wit, which he utilizes thanks to his astute intellect. If you don't stop and actually listen to or read it, you may miss what he's saying. For example, in "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.," Misty sings the following:
"Oh, I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man And I mean like a god damn marching band She says, 'Like literally, music is the air she breathes' And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream I wonder if she even knows what that word means Well, it's 'literally' not that"
First, this lyric relies on the listener knowing what the word "malaprop" means. (Here's the definition for those that don't). This is one seriously sharp barb, poking at the target's potential ignorance to the word "malaprop" and society's overuse/misuse of the word "literally" in two different ways. One being literal and the other a slightly veiled one.
Misty doesn't just limit his attacks to individuals, as he often sets his sites on society as a whole. In "Total Entertainment Forever," he ironically targets something he directly benefits from, society's consumption of pop-culture and media. He is sharply critical of the notion that all advances in technology and entertainment are beneficial for society, hence the infamously controversial lyric about Taylor Swift on the track. He even criticizes our ability to see this near the end of the song when the people happen upon the remains of the person who died from staying in virtual reality. Their thoughts on it were, "what a great time to be alive".
Contrasting Juxtaposition of Melody and Theme:
Father John Misty sings about some dark subject matter as well, but even when he sings about topics such as death, such as in "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," it doesn't really feel like it. This is because Misty is a master at contrasting melody and theme in his songs. Anyone can write a sad song that makes you sad. It is a rare talent to write a sad song that makes you happy. Father John Misty does this on the large scale with his doom and gloom songs about his views on society (i.e. "Total Entertainment Forever").
There are a great number of alt songwriters out there today who are immensely talented. For me, I put my money on Father John Misty as the individual who stands above the rest of the pack as the leader in the lyrical category. He's funny, sharp, sometimes cruel, and unique in his approach to his lyrics. Often controversial, and hardly lacking for words, Father John Misty is a gem for the alt scene. In the words of Pink Floyd, "Shine on You Crazy Diamond".