John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Bored In The USA”

Father John Misty’s just-released song is a puzzle and a delight.

By - Jan 22nd, 2015 05:38 pm
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Father John Misty. Photo from Facebook.

Father John Misty. Photo from Facebook.

I generally write about songs that might be a little less up-to-date, but don’t assume I hate everything modern because of that. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about some of the older ones for much longer. But this perturbing gem is off Father John Misty’s forthcoming and highly anticipated record, I Love You, Honeybear, due any minute. I love this song and this particular (and peculiar) performance of it from David Letterman’s show.

I have a question for Father John Mistyjust who the heck are you and where did you come from? When this link was sent to me by a friend, I watched in awe, there may have been drool on the keyboard. So keep a napkin handy as you watch this: Bored In The USA.

The first impression was of a young Randy Newman or Elton John. You see a fairly handsome guy in a suit and tie with a Williamsburg beard. He has the serious comportment of a singer/songwriter as he sits at his piano displaying a supple and soulful tenor. That the whole thing is set-up becomes obvious when he turns from the piano and it keeps playing. We are now in new territory.

Soon he stands stands holding the mic and, maintaining the straightest of straight faces, transforms himself into a thoughtful sort of nightclub singer. That lasts a couple seconds before he hops up on the piano, striking a coquette-ish pose. Meanwhile, a massive string section has joined in and the air of gravitas is established. You notice the double bass player is wearing a scarf. An odd touch that seems to stand out.

The questions about what we are watching become a little harder to answer when what seems the audience laughs at the line: “They gave me useless education.” The laughs continue and as you’re thinking this is going on a little too long, you realize it is canned… nothing but a sit-com laugh track. And still no cracks in this inscrutable performer’s perfectly earnest demeanor. The laugh track continues, creating an eerie remove from the song — a strangely touching tale of a country sliding off the tracks.

Bored In The USA

How many people rise and say
My brain’s so awfully glad to be here for yet another mindless day
Now I’ve got all morning to obsessively accrue
A small nation of meaningful objects they’ve gotta represent me too
By this afternoon I’ll live in debt
And by tomorrow be replaced by children

How many people rise and think
Oh good the stranger’s body’s still here
Our arrangement hasn’t changed
Now I’ve got a lifetime to consider all the ways
I grow more disappointing to you as my beauty warps and fades
I suspect you feel the same
When I was young I dreamt of a passionate obligation to a roommate

Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted
Who said that
Can I get my money back

Bored in the USA
Oh just a little bored in the USA
Save me white Jesus
Bored in the USA

They gave me useless education
And a sub-prime loan on a craftsman home
Keep my prescriptions filled
And now I can’t get off but I can kind of deal

Oh with being bored in the USA
Oh just a little bored in the USA
Save me president Jesus
I’m bored in the USA
How did it happen
Bored in the USA

© 2014 Father John Misty

I guess that’s clear enough. There is a level of estrangement here I’ve never seen captured quite so perfectly. It leaves you feel kind of sorry for this whiny and disaffected man. He’s what my friend Dave Wykoff  used to call a “hurtin’ unit.” I can think of Randy Newman songs that go this deep and funny and also one by Lyle Lovett that dances along the edge of stand-up comedy and the blues. Not bad company to be in, but the admission fee doesn’t sound cheap.

The real and inescapable sadness you hear in this song is because human brains are wired to hear minor tonalities as bad news. We evolved somehow to understand the flatted third step of the major scale as mournful. Convert that to a major third, a difference of one piano key, and it’s somehow jubilant. If that isn’t one of of life’s bigger mysteries perhaps you can tell me what is. The song’s chorus lives in the relative major, a chord that shares two out of three notes with the first minor one you hear in the song. Is it happy? No, and I suspect it’s because the tone has already been set and there is nothing in the lyric to provide the uplift the chords hint at. So, like country music, which manages to evoke tears without the minors, it plays tricks with your unconscious.

Misty was born Joshua Tillman and has performed in the past as J Tillman. Reading his bio on Wikipedia helps you understand the pointed lyrics. He was raised in a strict evangelical household. Secular music was a no-no until he was seventeen and even then it had to be uplifting and spiritual. Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming was allowed on the understanding that he was now a “Christian” artist.

Young Josh rebelled, moved to Seattle at twenty-one and, among other things, played on a couple tours with The Fleet Foxes, a group that is often compared to The Beach Boys. In that Wiki article he describes his artistic breakthrough, which involved mushrooms and a long drive down the coast. It’s too soon to tell, but should he sustain the perfect blend of dark comedy and sincere hurt seen and heard in this performance, we will all know soon know his name.

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Bored In The USA””

  1. Anonymous says:

    If you haven’t heard his first album, Fear Fun, you’re in for a treat.

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