How to describe Father John Misty: cynical philosopher, free-wandering folk musician, endearing sociopath, or loveable gobshite? Back in 2015, Misty, aka Josh Tillman, released I Love You, Honeybear to universal acclaim. While Tillman hinted at political disillusion (‘Holy Shit’, ‘Bored in the USA’), the record was primarily a collection of stirring love songs for his wife, bound together with lush melodies and an unmistakable lyrical wit. But on his new record, Pure Comedy, Tillman has gone from revelling in the arms of love in a corrupted world to bemoaning everything that’s wrong with it.
Never one to pull any punches, Tillman takes down the entertainment industry, technology, social media and the human condition with a hearty one-hour-and-fifteen-minute swoop. Opener and title track ‘Pure Comedy’ is one of a set list of jokes on the LP, as Tillman examines the absurdity of birth and nature. In the haze of piano and swaying string arrangements, Tillman challenges the arguable misogyny of Western religion: “When you question their sacred texts / Written by woman-hating epileptics.” Raised in a strict religious family, Tillman litters his music with references to his Christian upbringing. Following that pattern, ‘Pure Comedy’ is one of many personal moments stitched into the bigger picture of what Tillman tries to communicate: we’re all doomed, and praising a fictional man in the sky won’t save you.
“But on his new record, Pure Comedy, Tillman has gone from revelling in the arms of love in a corrupted world to bemoaning everything that’s wrong with it”
‘Total Entertainment Forever’ offers more incisive observations of society, as Tillman astutely questions whether technological progression equates to societal regression. Sang over jangly guitar and woozy blues organs, the song ponders over the ethics of contemporary technology and virtual reality: is the ability to virtually realise our sexual fantasies (“Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift”), and leave life’s undesirable baggage behind, steering us into a moral black hole? Tillman paints a damning view of the future (“When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes / Plugged into our hubs / Skin and bones / A frozen smile on every face”) and, lyrically, remains in a league of his own.
While largely jovial, Pure Comedy is specked with moments of grounding reality. In ‘Things It Would Be Helpful To Know Before The Revolution’, Tillman admits that a retreat to a world rid of social media, TV, or law and order, might be harder to adjust to than he first thought. The booming ‘Two Widely Different Perspectives’ is equally confrontational, as Tillman bounces between the increasingly polarised opinions of the left and the right, concluding that extremism in either direction leads to destruction and compounding misery, with everyone “Ending up with less.” In ‘Ballad Of A Dying Man,’ Tillman reflects on society’s shifting priorities, as he softly mutters “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath / But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss.” For Tillman, it’s all too much, too hilarious. For his listeners, it’s all too relatable.
A seasoned musician with multiple releases to his name, Tillman’s fundamental development is behind him, as explained in the autobiographical ‘Leaving LA’. The track is morose and sumptuous in equal measure, as Tillman trawls through his memories of living in Los Angeles. While much of Pure Comedy is critical of wider society, ‘Leaving LA’ provides a humorous self-critique for Tillman, “Another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously”: a man sick to death of “These L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands.” However, at thirteen minutes long, the track slows the album’s momentum, and gives Tillman a bit too much time for introspection.
Despite his shift from writing love songs to cynical ballads, Tillman is still a true romantic at heart. On ‘So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain’, a slow serenade of wobbly, analogue synths and spiralling harmonies, Tillman imagines a world without turmoil. The track finds Tillman at his most vulnerable, as he admits defeat to the pressures of living, and suggests that the numbing effects of drug consumption do little to ease the tension of reality. Instead, he finds peace in the inevitability of his own mortality (“The longer, the better / ‘Cause there’s no one old on magic mountain”).
“There’s no questioning that Tillman articulates the modern condition brilliantly, elegantly lampooning the vacuity of Hollywood, the instant gratification of social media, and the homogeneity of entertainment formats”
Luckily, he hasn’t got long to wait; the album’s final track ‘In Twenty Years Or So’ hypothesises that humanity will meet its end within the next two decades. However, the uplifting instrumentation of the album’s final tracks, with their Loudon Wainwright comedy-blues stylings, convey an iota of hope within Tillman’s songwriting.
There’s no questioning that Tillman articulates the modern condition brilliantly, elegantly lampooning the vacuity of Hollywood, the instant gratification of social media, and the homogeneity of entertainment formats. He does it with all of the loveable, hippie charm we’ve come to expect from a Father John Misty album: but Pure Comedy’s downfall lies with his glib lack of an alternative. It’s difficult not to be slightly disappointed by an album which dives into the nucleus of society and politics, and resurfaces without any gesture towards a solution. Unfortunately, Pure Comedy doesn’t stretch beyond angry catharsis.
Although the political nature and occasionally pretentious tone of the album may be off-putting to fans looking for the soft, bubbly folk tunes of previous Father John Misty records, Tillman’s desolate checklist for the end of the world is delivered with a fluent, frank irony which is hard to resist. When Pure Comedy comes full circle, you can’t help but wonder whether Tillman truly believes that things are as bleak as he makes them out to be: is that a glimmer of optimism, or one final punchline?
‘Total Entertainment Forever’