By Dylan Grosz
Under the moniker “Father John Misty,” Josh Tillman has spent his last two records sarcastically musing about himself. Tillman’s experiences and relationships hold the central focus of 2012’s “Fear Fun” and 2015’s acclaimed “I Love You, Honeybear.” On these records, he exhibited a calculated abuse of simplistic and fun lyrics about his experiences, weaving nuanced and often cynical critiques of love and Hollywood excess into his songs.
In “Pure Comedy,” his newest full-length release, Tillman instrumentally and thematically expands the focus of his lyrics. He roots himself less in personal experience and more in the role of abstract cultural commentator. He acts as a fly on the wall, critiquing society, so disillusioned that he has removed himself from its tapestry.
The album begins with a flawless four-song run. In the near-perfect opener “Pure Comedy,” Tillman very clearly broadcasts his feelings about man, attacking religion and “their sacred texts/Written by woman-hating epileptics.”
Father John Misty’s views themselves make sense, and they don’t pose much of a break from his pretentious, cynical character. However, rather than message through personal storytelling like on his previous efforts, Tillman begins with an impersonal lecture on the beginnings of humanity, setting a tone of blunt directness for most of the record.
To soften the blow of this major change in character, Father John Misty returns to his ironic “I Love You, Honeybear” form with the energetic “Total Entertainment Forever.” Father John Misty thinly veils his pessimism about humanity’s growing superficiality by exclaiming “can you believe how far we’ve come/In the New Age?”
As an alternative, in “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” Tillman proposes a world where the system is overthrown, preventing the dystopia of “Total Entertainment Forever.” However, Father John Misty, rarely one to be pleased, actually misses the easygoing lifestyle of the past, since in this post-revolutionary world, he must now truly live and grapple with raw humanity.
Again, Father John Misty returns to the drawbacks of human advancement in the falsetto-ridden “Ballad of the Dying Man.” Here, Tillman details the final moments of a slacktivist in the golden age of information. As the dying man reaches his final moments, he fervently refreshes his phone, trying to get the final breaking news updates of society as a whole. By portraying a man who chooses to check society’s pulse instead of his own, Father John Misty implies an overarching fear of news and social media: He dreads the loss of a sense of self in the face of the Internet’s growing hive mind.
By “Birdie,” the record slows down in what can be chalked up to a purposeful break, but as the listener reaches “Leaving LA”’s dreary 13-minute meditation, “Pure Comedy” begins to turn on itself both in theme and in quality. Although Tillman justifies the song’s spareness by insisting that “I never learned to play the lead guitar/I always more preferred the speaking parts,” the byzantine backing instrumentation previously taken for granted is sorely missed, traded for a lulling guitar and string section.
Understandably, “Leaving LA”’s minimalist long form lets the listener focus on Tillman’s grand tale of self-criticism, but its lack of melodic variety in any one instrument or voice recoils the punch of the opening tracks and signals the beginning of a relatively lackluster second half. Save for the moving “When the God Of Love Returns, There’ll Be Hell To Pay” and “The Memo”’s country twang and odd songwriting, the second half of “Pure Comedy” feels slightly vapid, somehow redundant despite tackling new concepts and telling different stories.
In the final six of an exhausting 74 minutes, Father John Misty finishes with a spare, foreboding end, declaring that, “in 20 years/More or less/This human experiment will reach its violent end.” Tillman doesn’t necessarily back down on his prediction, but in a rare feat of hope and optimism, he ensures us that he – and presumably we – will be fine, as he eyes his lover and realizes humanity’s redeeming qualities. There’s nothing to fear.
Despite the outward lyrical content, Father John Misty’s third effort is still as much of a character study as its predecessors, retaining the ever-present self-reflective and critical nature of his previous efforts. We see, however, a partial demise of his sarcastic positivity, the void replaced with a genuine pessimism for the deteriorating superficial world around him.
Though the main focus of his records are overarching intangible concepts, Father John Misty’s unique lyric style and inescapable sarcasm make it nearly impossible for the listener to divorce Tillman’s character from the literal subjects of his songs. Though the middle of the record divulges a bit of the artist, there is a severe lack of narrative and “I”s, with even fewer “I”s that directly refer Tillman himself.
Self-reference operates more as a corrective rather than a focal point. At many points, Father John Misty undermines himself so as not to seem overtly preachy and objective, calling himself “Another white guy in 2017/Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.”
However, the strength of Tillman’s previous albums, especially “I Love You, Honeybear,” stemmed from the personal stake held in each of them. In “Pure Comedy,” the incessant dictation of humanity’s hypocrisies and shortcomings can make the record play like a list of grievances, angsty Spotify clickbait. This album’s theme of uncertainty and conflicting views on the human condition is undeniably powerful, yet at some points the record crumbles under the pure density and gravity of its message.
In especially divisive times, such a conscious album from such an acclaimed artist would surely be important to our cultural lexicon, reflecting what humanity has come to and where it will go. Quite handily, this record succeeds in achieving a “this is an important album” status, featuring some of 2017’s most poignant lyrics and sentimental production. It just fails when Father John Misty knows it.
Essential tracks: “Pure Comedy,” “Total Entertainment Forever,” “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” “Ballad of the Dying Man,” “When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay,” “The Memo”
Weak tracks: “Leaving LA,” “Smoochie”
Contact Dylan Grosz at dgrosz ‘at’ stanford.edu.