The eldest Tillman balances his pride with disappointment. The father to Josh—as in solo artist J. Tillman, as in the beat behind Fleet Foxes—and his younger sibling Zach raised his boys among the flock, instruments in hand. "We grew up constantly surrounded by music," Zach Tillman reminisces about a childhood marked by Dad on the guitar, Mom's soprano voice, and the long shadow of the cross—to the point that even the airwaves were taboo: "We listened to modern rock radio underneath the sheets with a flashlight."
This upbringing segued naturally into Tillman's teen years, where he devoured parentally approved recordings under the Tooth & Nail banner, until releases from Roadside Monument and Joe Christmas changed things. "I distinctly remember thinking, 'I don't think this is actually Christian, because it's really good,'" Tillman explains. "I know it's on Tooth & Nail, but I think that somebody's pulling a fast one here."
From there, the musically inclined Tillman took his own path, bouncing around various bands until finally settling in with the somewhat solo vessel known as Pearly Gate Music. With his wondrously soulful voice—a bellow with a restrained grace—Pearly Gate Music's self-titled LP debut (out this month on Barsuk) echoes a past spent in the pews, but without either heavy-handed proselytizing or the usual apostate breakup issues.
Sounding like he spent a heartbreak winter in the same sadness cabin as Bon Iver, Tillman's secularized spiritual music can topple weak-kneed listeners with little more than its emotional heft. The intimate gloom of opener "Golden Funeral" makes up for what it lacks in volume with a soft vulnerability, a feeling that translates effortlessly to the love-smitten "Navy Blues" and the lone voice that hovers above the sparse "I Was a River" (his Daddy Wrote You Letters tour EP offers an equally haunting live version of this song).
With lyrics that veer toward the cryptic, the younger Tillman reveals few personal details; he's one to clot the emotional hemorrhaging, even when the album sounds incredibly exposed. Part of this just might be the stoic Tillman way. But then there is the issue of a bio that focuses more on fictionalized conversation with Stephen Malkmus ("This stuff is terrible") than the stuff itself, and an interview with AOL's Spinner site where Tillman joyfully fed the disinterested writer a serious of fantastic lies that were cemented as truths once posted online. His fictitious claims that a house fire left him "technically dead" for three minutes and bestowed on him the ability to instantaneously comprehend sheet music have been run by other publications (namely respectable British daily the Guardian) as if they were gospel.
"If someone from the Guardian had called me up and asked, I would have been happy to say: 'Yes. Fuck Spinner.com; it's AOL corporate garbage. No one who is really concerned about music gets their information from Spinner.com.' But they didn't."
Even without deliberate misdirection, everyone will interpret Pearly Gate Music's veiled lyrics differently—from the homoerotic night out with the son of God in "Oh, What a Time!" to the straighter and sadder lover's lament of "I Woke Up." Or, as Tillman explains, "If they want to believe that I'm this really sentimental, weepy dude, that's fine. If they buy the record, I'm happy to let them have their fantasy."