Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, is both a journalist’s dream and worst nightmare. His press conversations are hours-long marathons, making transcription a royal pain and a focus tough to pin down. On the upside, these chats overflow with quips and sound bites, meaning that writers really can’t go wrong with whatever they choose to include. Best of all, Tillman knows he’s an entertaining subject and relishes his notorious reputation. “I love the exhilaration of feeling a pull quote come out of your mouth,” he recently told The New York Times. “The words just taste better.”
Tillman is the last person to embrace any sort of extreme duality, however—especially when it comes to his music or personality. “It drives me insane to see people say, ‘Josh Tillman, the person behind the Father John Misty persona,’” he told The Guardian. “People can either accept that I mean what I’m saying or think that it’s some kind of mumblecore, beta-male, self-aware trickery. The truth is somewhere in the middle. All of my music exists in the middle. People who want to see things in stark dualities are not going to get much out of my music.”
For those reasons he outlines, Father John Misty records demand full attention. Throwing them on in the background while doing something else, or cherry-picking lyrics as a way to extrapolate meaning, is a good way to misunderstand Tillman’s musical nuance or intentions.
Take, for instance, his debut of the new song “Total Entertainment Forever” on Saturday Night Live. Almost immediately, everyone homed in on the lyric “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift,” launching a mini-storm of controversy. The irony is, the song itself is about the surreal and addictive nature of online entertainment, and the abundance of headlines about Tillman’s lust for (or lack thereof) Swift that swarmed to fill the void only proves his point about our abundant leisure time and how we choose to spend it. No wonder he told The Guardian, “Outrage is the new entertainment. That’s what Twitter is for.”
Yet the attention-grabbing flamboyance of the Father John Misty mystique is lately proving to be inversely proportional to the actual execution of Tillman’s music. Pure Comedy is a placid, undulating folk record with orchestral flourishes—more precisely, a modern update of mellow AM Gold. The ’70s soft-rock purveyors Bread are a major influence on the cascading harmonies and meticulous songcraft of “Ballad Of The Dying Man,” while the specter of Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy-era Elton John hovers over the title track and “Smoochie.” Any number of forgotten one-hit wonders from the ’70s live again through the record’s dry-straw acoustic guitars, molasses tempos, and Tillman’s sincerity-oozing tenor.
Pure Comedy isn’t all Time Life collection homages, however. The record’s bursts of shivering strings add a slight avant-garde edge, thanks to arrangements by composers such as Gavin Bryars and Nico Muhly. (The latter’s contributions to “In Twenty Years Or So” ebb and flow like a brilliant sunrise.) “A Bigger Paper Bag” could slip onto Beck’s Sea Change, while “The Memo” has an eerie digital overlay of robotic voices, which provide sneaky commentary about the way technology intrudes on our lives.
Yet despite these experimental flourishes, most of Pure Comedy remains beholden to musical tradition—and it must be said, a rather staid one at that. After a while, the lack of genuine hooks and the accumulation of meandering tempos combine for a rather sleepy listening experience. There’s no sly wink to all this tranquil instrumentation, with the possible exception of syrupy piano ballad “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution.” There, Tillman’s straight-faced delivery lends an air of absurdity to lyrics such as “Sometimes I miss the top of the food chain / But what a perfect afternoon,” while surges of quivering strings and bleating horns create discord that mirrors its evocation of societal collapse.
Such moments of deadpan humor keep Pure Comedy from becoming too monotonous, while also paying testament to Tillman’s growing lyrical savvy. Unlike 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, which often used explicit and titillating imagery to create tension, the friction here comes from the distance between the album’s gentle instrumentation and its cutting subject matter. Tillman has grown into a biting social commentator, lashing out at political polarization and consolidation, our craven superficiality, and humanity’s penchant for wanton self-destruction. Pure Comedy is his subtle, unsparing takedown of modern society.
“Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is a self-explanatory song detailing how maintaining stubbornly antagonistic perspectives ensures everybody loses, while “Birdie” envisions a planet that’s either sci-fi utopia or dystopian nightmare, depending on interpretation. “When The God Of Love Returns, There’ll Be Hell To Pay” uses biblical allusions (seven trumpets, swarms of locusts, the Pale Horse) to castigate God for creating humans, then acting surprised when they run amok and ruin everything. “And now You’ve got the gall to judge us,” Tillman says drily. “Maybe try something less ambitious the next time you get bored / Oh my Lord.”
Pure Comedy excels when Tillman trains his observant side-eye on smaller targets as well. “Ballad Of The Dying Man” imagines what an anonymous Twitter troll might contemplate on his deathbed: that after he’s gone, nobody will be left to criticize “overrated hacks,” “false feminists,” and “pretentious, ignorant voices.” On “Leaving LA,” Tillman outlines many of his reasons for fleeing the city, snarking, “These L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands / Just sounds like dollar signs and Amy Grant.”
Ever self-deprecating, Tillman includes himself in the ridicule. Elsewhere, on “Leaving LA,” he imagines that a 10-verse, chorus-free song might alienate some of his loyalists: “I used to like this guy / But this new shit makes me want to die.” Yet the very next verse is quietly devastating, as it’s based on a real-life childhood trauma: Tillman started choking on candy in a department store while Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” played on the overhead. In the song, he calls his mom “Barbara,” in a nod to the formality of their relationship, and marvels at the sick incongruity of the situation: “That’s when I first heard the comedy won’t stop for / All the little boys dying in department stores.”
In these moments, Tillman is both sardonic observer and participant, and while the title Pure Comedy comes with an implicit, “Can you believe this shit?” scoff, it’s redeemed by the fact that his heart isn’t totally black. The sweet “Smoochie” is about having someone levelheaded around to counter your personal demons, while the album ends with “In Twenty Years Or So,” a song that shrugs off impending apocalypse, embraces being grateful to be alive, and resolves to not let fear rule our actions. It’s not fatalism but a practical coping mechanism, and a faintly optimistic gesture of faith. But to find it, Tillman challenges, you have to listen to each and every word.
Purchase Pure Comedy here, which helps support The A.V. Club.