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Which isn't to say Fear Fun is full of belly laughs. It's funny the way a Coen Brothers film is funny, centered around desperate characters doing strange things. Tillman plays the lead role, but the album doesn't sound like the rants of a self-important songwriter.
Fear Fun embraces its creator's eccentricities head-on. "I'm writing a novel, because it's never been done before," he sings glibly on "I'm Writing a Novel," while the majestic closer, "Everyman Needs a Companion," shrugs off his new moniker over swelling background vocals. "I never liked the name Joshua. I got tired of J." Tapping into the unrestrained personal glory of records by Harry Nilsson, Loudon Wainwright III, Warren Zevon, or more modern probationers like Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Tillman's dear friend Har Mar Superstar.
Tillman's in on the joke but is willing to be the joke, too. Like his videos and stage presence, it stands in sharp contrast to the polite indie rock climate.
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"I don't know what's in the water right now that makes the music thing so . . .," he says, trailing off. "Maybe it's all the estrogen in the water or something? It's very escapist, a kind of fantasy. A lot of the music you hear is, 'Oh, whiskey river,' or just these real antiquated images. Listening to a lot of the music that's out there right now is like being antique furniture — or not even antique furniture, like, furniture that's new but it looks old. It sounds like [artists] want to draw all the attention away from themselves as a person. The songwriter is supposed to be a conduit for this pre-existing aesthetic or musical ideal. It's just so generic."
Fear Fun may risk shaking off unadventurous listeners with its lines about Canadian shamans and dead Angeleno ladies' men, but it never risks being generic — something Tillman is proud of.
"Maybe I'm such a maniac, but I think my relation to the songs is very important," he says. "It's more or less the price of admission."