You Had a Good Run, Folk Music, But It’s Time to Move On

Josh Tillman, stage name Father John Misty, released I Love You, Honeybear last week. What’s striking critics at Grantland, Pitchfork and NPR isn’t the quality of his album—it’s solid lyricism set to a soundscape he does well. The surprise is in the thematic departure from Tillman’s previous work. Leaving behind his folk persona, he makes an effort to explore something new: real life.

Tillman, a man with a dark beard and blue eyes, started his career releasing solo albums recorded late at night before his 4:30 a.m. shift at a bakery. His clear tenor cut through mellow layered guitars and kitschy tambourines to create a folksy sound. He inhabited a lyrical world of wilderness, family and mythology. It was a rugged pastiche of Appalachian poverty. It was music for lumberjacks. More than that, it was ironic. It was rustic poetry without an ounce of realism, adored by urbanites in Williamsburg.

Tillman reached critical success with the explosion of the band he joined in 2008, Fleet Foxes. They ascended into the new class of alt-rock behemoths we listened to in high school, playing music inspired by older Americana and folk. This club of neo-folk rockers grew to include alt-scene topliners like Band of Horses, Bon Iver, Beirut and Grizzly Bear, among others.

Folk’s popularity paralleled other trends of the time. It went hand-in-hand with thrift-store plaid, hiking boots, beards and anything Do-It-Yourself. It was the idea that nostalgia—for times when mom and dad stuck together and courtship looked like Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams in The Notebook—could evoke emotion more powerful than sincerity could.

Folk offered something new for us. At its best, it evoked the feeling of flipping through a dusty family photo album. The genre had the power of memory. I can remember, in the summer of 2008, when the Weezer-esque garage-rockers I knew gave up on the loud stuff and reconvened around a campfire with acoustic guitars. For a second there, the avant-garde were folk, so we were folk. Sure, we recognized it was a fad, but there was a now-ness to folk’s characteristic oldness.

In 2011, Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues peaked at #4 on Billboard and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album. The group sings in the song “Montezuma,” “In dearth or in excess/Both the slave and the empress/Will return to the dirt I guess/Naked as when they came.”

This moment is an interesting one: It’s a statement of vulnerability, of realness, told through an invulnerable, ironic folk persona. The verse foresaw what would soon happen to the genre.

The folk moment was born out of the emotional hangover of the waning emo crowd. The passion that moved us initially gave way to pageantry and overwrought cries to be empathized with. Atlantic and Capitol scooped up the bands we loved. Emo felt sold out. It became less an ethos, and more a vehicle to sell skinny jeans at Target (which my mother, bless her soul, bought for me, not knowing she was destroying the thing I loved most).

The same cycle was inevitable for folksters. After the success of the pioneers, major labels caught on and began pedaling their own bearded supergroups. Banjos and mellow harmonies first took over Alternative radio around 2010, then the Top 40. The new batch all sounded the same: The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men and, of course, Mumford & Sons.

The rustic imagery that once moved audiences felt forced. Record companies made millions on the back-to-basics simplicity of folk. Target sold pre-distressed plaid shirts. Banjo seeped into dance club EDM.

As we exit the folk moment, I understand now what it was. It was a moment when nostalgia trumped sincerity as an emotive force. It was good and sweet and innocent, but in some ways troublingly regressive. It was music about traditional roles—“ma and pa,” “my girl,” “your man”—championed by a generation raised by single parents and legalizing gay marriage. It was a blissful refusal to acknowledge race, class and politics. It felt like a connection to a shared history of rural white bucolic purity. But there’s a problem there: We don’t actually share that history, and that history isn’t as pure as Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros makes us feel.

Tillman’s subjects in I Love You, Honeybear seem to be markedly more 2015. On the fourth track, he sings of a vapid sexual partner in his modern, Brooklyn life: “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.”

This too is a statement about vulnerability and realness, but it sounds different. The folk moment is over, and it’s about damn time.

Sam Pitcavage CM ‘15 is a government and economics major, athlete and dining hall enthusiast from Beaverton, Ore.

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