Sweet Jesus, where to begin. I might as well start by saying that despite all the hype and critical admiration behind his music, I personally never cared all that much for Father John Misty
. Yes, he is an incredibly clever and sharp-witted lyricist, probably one of the best songwriters today, but the music's tone of overbearing self-importance, not to mention his tendency to love his own words
a little too much, often made his work just too difficult for me to enjoy. Josh Tillman claims the idea for Father John came to him during an acid trip and is really just a character he made up and uses to record his outlandish ballads. However, onstage or not, it seemed like there was never really an off switch to the persona, to the point where you weren't sure if this holier-than-thou hipster poet was truly just a work of fiction, which honestly became grating after a certain point.
All of this brings me to Pure Comedy
. Honest to God, I have never been so conflicted about a work of music in my life, which says a lot in itself. Gone is the sarcastic nuance that made the love songs on 2015's I Love You, Honeybear
so deceptively clever and wildly entertaining, and in its place is a unflinching ambition to be as confrontational and blunt as possible about one fact: Shit sucks right now. Right off the bat in the opening title track, Tillman goes down the list and rips into technology, social media, religion, political leaders, and the general devolution of our self-obsessed society, without any effort in hiding how he really
feels. The over six minute track in turn acts as a manifesto for the entire record, as these 13 tracks are uneasy, in-your-face, and possess no sense of subtly. It's harder than ever to tell if Tillman is joking or not.
But...I think that's exactly the point. Dare I say it, but I find myself liking FJM for the very thing I always criticized him for.
We live in a post-truth age when everyone seemingly gets their news from clickbait-y headlines on their Facebook feed, trusting info on face value alone. Facts are no longer good enough apparently, so there's no room for subtlety. Pure Comedy
seems to be Tillman's frustrated reaction to this brave new world, a social critique speaking for a new generation that's by far the most cynical music recorded outside of hardcore punk and metal in recent memory. This is the work of a man who is trying to make as much sense as possible because nothing else about the world makes sense anymore, which results in a vastly compelling and introspective listen.
Granted, as this album is so lyrically abrasive, Tillman is more than ever balancing on the line between good art and preachy-self indulgence. Luckily, where the lyrics lack in delicacy, the instrumentation makes up for thanks to its lush orchestration and piano-driven ballads reminiscent of 70s ballad masters like Elton John and Randy Newman. It's the music that welcomes you in and keeps you listening even though the lyrics, while still some of Tillman's finest and most focused work, make you want to squirm in your seat. Take "Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution," which features a warm piano and a Beatles-esque mid-tempo shuffle while Tillman laments about how humanity is in an inescapable cycle of failure, destined to find a way to fall back into our old habits even after a grand uprising has cleaned the slate. "We all get a bit restless / With no one advertising to us constantly,"
he sings, "If you don't mind hunting and gathering / We're all still pretty good at eating on the run."
"Total Entertainment Forever" shows Tillman addressing the same need for a noise-free escape from tech-induced stimulation that Radiohead tackled two decades ago on "No Surprises," though updated to include having Oculus Rift sex with Taylor Swift. While Radiohead aimed for a life at ease, however, Tillman takes a more cynical route and simply wants no feeling at all, singing "No gods to rule us, no drugs to soothe us, no myths to prove stuff, no love to confuse us."
Although again, the celebratory horns and grooving percussion section make it hard to tell how serious Tillman is about wanting numbness, but at the very least, you stick around because its catchy. The album's understated closer, "In Twenty Years or So," is probably the closest Tillman ever gets to positivity, but more because he's reached the conclusion that even though western civilization is destined to fail, that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the long way down.
These songs are hard pills to swallow, well crafted or not, and it's even understandable if this ends up being too much for people to enjoy. I thought I was heading in that direction at first too, that is until I reached the album's long and winding centerpiece, "Leaving LA." If you listen without paying attention, the jarringly autobiographical track can easily come across as pompous. I mean, anyone with the gall to add an entire goddamn verse of "la's" in a 13-minute song has to be a little self-assured, right? Resist the urge to roll your eyes at the time length, because Tillman sings with, somewhat surprisingly, candid self-awareness about his own faults. He points out with an unflinching deadpan about how he can't play guitar very well, how he still deep down wants radio hits, and, most critically, how well aware he is of coming across as "Another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously."
Just like that, in one very long song, Tillman takes any criticism people could throw at him and aims it on himself. He literally took the words out of my mouth, and honestly, that's kind of brilliant. That sudden showing of self-awareness makes you go back and look at the record in a whole new light, and you begin to wonder if it really plays it as straight as it initially seems. You wonder if maybe the record is really just a big, dark joke and if FJM was still being the "funny man" after all - but then again, maybe it isn't, and maybe he wasn't. As a result, by not being sure of what Tillman truly believes halfway into the record, you go from questioning if he believes what he's saying to if you
believe what he's saying. There already
is VR porn, so what does that say about our societal priorities? The reality is that there are stronger and more eloquent albums that cover the same topics, namely OK Computer
, but in the end, the record works because it leaves you curious and wanting to come back to find out if you truly agree with even a sliver Tillman's bleak premonitions.
For an album that comes across as so clearly focused on its mission, it ends up not being so cut-and-dry by the final chord. While some may dismiss it as a slow-tempo mope fest, Pure Comedy
ends up having a lot more going for it than its prickly surface may let on, only truly succeeding in its purpose as a singular product. It's hard to say how well the album will age, as similarly themed albums had the benefit of interpretation to transcend decades, while this one is a mercilessly on-the-nose reaction to a specific time. But, at least for the here and now, Pure Comedy
gives plenty of people who are alienated, afraid, and depressed over humanity's current trajectory a lot to dig into, and in doing so, causes listeners to look inward about their own views on the world. Will we get through our current problems and laugh about them years from now, or will things only get darker and less funny from here? For Tillman, the answer is very likely the latter, which is incredibly bleak and pessimistic. But who knows; deep down, you might find that you, too, feel like there's some truth to the darkness. Maybe it'll even make you chuckle.