The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tim Heidecker found fame through absurdist humor. His new album ‘Fear of Death’ is no laughing matter.

Tim Heidecker (Cara Robbins)
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The comedian Tim Heidecker was in no mood to entertain more jokes about his music.

On a Wednesday morning in late August, Heidecker released “Nothing,” a fluorescent ode to the redemption of nihilism and the second single from “Fear of Death,” his winning new folk-rock album about losing your relevance, your coolness and eventually your life. He shared the obligatory minute-long clip to Instagram, eagerly refreshing the page to see what listeners had to say. He considers the song, a piano-powered anthem fit for the Band or Randy Newman, possibly the peak of the dozen albums he has made since 2000.

Most fans were enthusiastic, asking about the album’s release date (which was Friday), extolling its cover art (by psychedelic guru Robert Beatty) and even comparing it to early Paul McCartney. (The album includes a jangling take on “Let It Be.”) Inevitably, though, someone offered a winking gripe. “This song would be better if it didn’t mention Hollywood,” the commenter quipped. “Why so self-indulgent? Let a broader array of nihilists see themselves in your mediocre ­music.”

For years, Heidecker had endured longtime admirers telling him to stop with the serious music or the President Trump sendups. This dig struck a nerve. “Not taking notes right now thanks,” he snapped back, then logged off.

“I understand that people are going to be drawn to my comedy but not like the music I make. But people like to hate things. I don’t get it,” Heidecker says from the California garage that’s now his office and studio. Over his right shoulder, Bob Dylan peers out from the “Renaldo & Clara” movie poster, a sage for dismissing disdain. “The loudest people aren’t really the people you should listen to.”

Heidecker knows he has mostly done this to himself: For much of the past two decades, he has engineered a comedic multiverse with ridiculous friends, their orbit teeming with so many in-jokes, origin myths and recurring characters that tracking them would require a field guide. His television shows, movies, online specials, podcasts, early albums and outlandish Old Spice commercials spooled from his success with the pioneering sketch comedy of “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” that presaged Twitter’s endless absurdity and troll sensibility.

Heidecker has often played some version of himself, blurring the boundaries between his on-screen persona and the actual person. He’s courted that tension, and sometimes it richochets.

“This isn’t fan service. I don’t think, ‘I better do this to keep the Beaver Boys addicts happy,” says Heidecker, referring to an obnoxiously dancing party bro he played a decade ago. “These are just the things I like to do. It’s not overthought — or even thought, really.”

Still, in recent years, Heidecker the person — a 44-year-old and married father of two, living north of Los Angeles in the suburb of Glendale — has started to come into sharper focus. In 2012, Heidecker played the single, sullen lead of “The Comedy,” a deceptively despondent film about making it into your mid-30s on a steady diet of irony and alcohol. His daughter, Amelia, was born the next year.

Then, in 2016, Heidecker began a trilogy of true-to-life albums that document the process of settling into domesticity. “In Glendale” is an autobiographical manifesto about air conditioning and changing diapers, “What the Broken-Hearted Do . . .” a hypothetical post-divorce lament. “Fear of Death” deals with the biggest issues yet — environmental calamity, American anti-exceptionalism, individual obsolescence, middle-aged mortality, and how it will feel when the green space of our graveyards gets sold to some high-rise developer. Accepting adulthood has suddenly become the through line of Heidecker’s career. Glowing like a Laurel Canyon sunset, “Fear of Death” is Dad rock for the end of the world or, at least, your youth.

“If he had a Twitter account where he talked about his actual feelings, those are these records,” says Jonathan Rado, the Foxygen founder whose paisley sounds and imaginative choices have made him a vogue record producer. He has worked on each album within that Heidecker triptych. “It’s the most earnest version of Tim, even if his fans still want ‘comedy Tim.’ ”

Heidecker actually found music before he found film. As a middle-class kid raised in the industrial hub of Allentown, Pa., he sang Pentecostal songs alongside his grandmother. At an otherwise-rigorous Catholic school, he learned strum-along spirituals he calls “granola Catholic.” He loved the show tunes of the local theater and the rock he discovered as an avowed member of the earliest MTV generation. But then, when Heidecker was in the seventh grade, his father came home with those iconic red-and-blue Beatles cassettes.

“I got into it the way other kids were getting into ‘Star Wars’ or video games,” says Heidecker, who has proudly passed part of pandemic life by trading Beatles rarities on a text thread that includes fellow comedian and musician Fred Armisen. “I was interested in knowing all about these guys. That became my ­hobby.”

The infatuation became an impetus for making his own music, too. In high school, access to four-tracks and amplifiers came easier than hulking cameras and editing desks. He wrote his own songs and joined bands. One of them, the Pulsating Libidos, mailed demos to agents and labels, pining for responses that never came. Heidecker loved Teenage Fanclub and Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison and the Smashing Pumpkins. When he shipped 60 miles south to study film at Temple University, he didn’t bother taking his guitar.

During Heidecker’s first year there, he met Eric Wareheim, his best friend and creative foil for the quarter-century since. Music slowly became part of his creative life again through the pair’s success on “Awesome Show,” where he collaborated with Davin Wood, the series’ composer.

Wood taught him functional music theory, like how singer-songwriters depended so much on the major seventh chord, or what made the songs of, say, Dan Fogelberg or Elton John tick. Heidecker and Wood released two albums together, knowing compendiums of ’70s songwriter pastiche. He devoted an album of his own to joking on then-presidential candidate Herman Cain and started a band for classic rock sendups, the Yellow River Boys.

Still, after making 10 records, Heidecker didn’t consider himself a bona fide musician. Rado remembers Heidecker fretting over piano parts on the first album they made together, because Heidecker worried he wasn’t good enough to play them. Rado convinced him to cut a funny song about Scientology from “In Glendale,” as it felt like a joke meant only to sate preexisting fans. Even now, Heidecker lampoons his own voice, saying he’s better at sounding like Dylan or a hair-metal singer than himself. “My voice doesn’t have its own character,” he says, shrugging beneath a frown. “Or at least a strong one.”

This self-doubt prefigured “Fear of Death,” too. In December 2018, Father John Misty asked Heidecker to join an all-star lineup at a Los Angeles benefit for victims of nearby wildfires. As he watched fellow Pennsylvania transplant Natalie Mering, who records as Weyes Blood, sing “O Holy Night,” he wondered how he could follow such a transfixing voice.

But she was a fan who put him at ease by introducing him as the star of “the world’s greatest TV show.” A month later, she stopped by a taping of his podcast, “Office Hours,” to talk Pennsylvania pride and church music. Heidecker grabbed his guitar impromptu to strum a tune he’d just finished about being too old to care about being cool, “Fear of Death.” Mering sang along; they sounded instantly energized, familiar friends meeting up over new material.

Drew Erickson spotted that chemistry. A Los Angeles keyboardist who had just played on Weyes Blood’s 2019 album, “Titanic Rising,” he saw Heidecker at Mering’s record-release show in Hollywood and pitched the idea of working together. That was a Thursday. Erickson spent the weekend building a band, and they were in the studio Monday. The players inspired Heidecker, especially pedal steel whiz Catfish Gallaher and Mering, who joined him for nearly every line. The first session enthused him so much he quickly wrote the record’s second half, recognizing these songs as personal journals about aging.

“I don’t have serious health problems, but I have typical middle-aged issues — high blood pressure, cholesterol, being overweight,” he says. “And when you have kids, usually when you’re trying to sleep, you think, ‘People have heart attacks all the time. What happens then?’ Then you’re with your financial adviser, getting life insurance.”

“Fear of Death” leans freely into those worries. “Come Away With Me” is a Stephen Stills-like love song that doubles as an escapist fantasy for fleeing the hot, stinking city before it’s too late. Written after family vacations to the Vermont woods and the Canadian Rockies, “Backwards” uses bucolic imagery to mourn a future that now promises apocalypse. It’s the standard Paul Simon has yet to write about mass extinction. “Long As I’ve Got You” might be a lost hit from Big Pink’s basement. For the first time, Heidecker sounds unapologetically like himself on tape — dark but not dour, witty if not necessarily here for punchlines.

“He’s a really sincere person who cares a lot in his own agnostic way, but it doesn’t seem that way with his comedy,” says Mering, who laughs so hard when she paraphrases her favorite “Tim and Eric” bits she struggles to finish. “But it’s in there.”

With “Fear of Death,” Heidecker, as Mering puts it, “called it on a lot of things” about 2020, from absolute angst to mortal fear. It’s all so incisive you’re left to wonder why a successful comedian has such a hard time being taken seriously as a songwriter, why we still confine some celebrities to silos? Why can’t Spagett — the man with the marinara-stained mouth who loved to scare people on “Tim and Eric,” perhaps Heidecker’s most enduring character — grow up enough to contemplate global warming and death and sing those terrifying thoughts aloud?

“Little Lamb” is the most gentle song on “Fear of Death,” a fingerpicked beauty so soft and stocked with barnyard imagery you may take it for a lullaby. Mering and Heidecker coo the tune, like parents singing a baby to sleep. But it’s actually Heidecker’s rejoinder for longtime fans — the little lambs chasing him around, bleating about “who I was and who I am/and who I am not anymore.” Inspired by the barbs of those who told him to stick to comedy and stay away from politics, it’s Heidecker’s velvet-gloved clapback and a promise that he now takes himself seriously enough as a songwriter to ask us for the same.

“I’m telling my audience, ‘I’m over here doing something, and if you don’t like it, see you later,’ ” says Heidecker. He laughs nervously and tucks the shoulder-length, honey-blonde hair he’s let grow during quarantine behind his ears. He’ll keep it until a role besides stay-at-home pandemic dad requires a cut. He thinks he looks a little like Wings-era McCartney.

“That’s not how I feel all the time, but I do if I’m feeling confident and someone says, ‘I liked you better when you were funny,’ ” he continues. “I’m doing this because I love doing this. If you like it, cool, but I’m not taking your notes. I liked putting that in a pretty little song.”

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