TRACK MARKS: Best of 2015 – “Bored in the USA” by Father John Misty

Our Track Marks feature spotlights individual songs that contributors love. Looking back at the year, we’ve selected some of our favorite songs from albums that don’t appear on our Best Albums of 2015 list.

Artists have been looking back for as long as there have been others before them but few blur the line between past and present with as much flair (and controversy) as Father John Misty, the stage persona of ex-Fleet Fox-er Josh Tillman, which is equal parts Mick Jagger swagger and Harry Nilsson self-loathing. Like any good persona it’s a pliable one, noxiously hostile on one track and swooningly romantic on the next; the best songs on his second record I Love You, Honeybear often sound like a battle between the two, a hardened cynic trying on a pair of rose-colored glasses.

Tillman, you see, got married while he was working on Honeybear and the album is rife with the anxieties that come with making big life choices and devoting oneself to someone else’s happiness. “Bored in the U.S.A.” at first seems like an outlier, a Springsteen-referencing goof in the midst of tormented love songs that turns its gaze within rather than toward another. There’s more than a little of Randy Newman’s D.N.A. in its composition, from the deceptive simplicity of its piano line to the winking irony of the lyrics. (“Save me white Jesus,” he cries at one point.) But it’s of a piece with Tillman’s larger aim, which is to kick up enough dust that you won’t notice the real tears in his eyes.

Like “Born in the U.S.A.” it’s the sort of openhearted satire that invites misconstruing. Lazy listeners of that classic (several of them presidential candidates) heard only the patriotic fervor in Springsteen’s lyrics, ignoring the harder truths they underscored. Here too Tillman seems to be sarcastically calling out the lie of the American dream with such lines as “They gave me a useless education/And a subprime loan/on a Craftsman home.” But as the studio audience laughter begins trickling into the audio the hollow core of his cleverness sinks in. It’s not the U.S.A. that’s the problem but the privileged men who proclaim to be bored with it and believe that alone makes them interesting. It seems a bit counterintuitive for an artistic persona to shill for the rewards of being real. But in the year of the so-called “affluenza teen” it may be too bitter a pill to be swallowed straight.