Folk-rock singer-songwriter Josh Tillman releases his third studio album under the Father John Misty moniker, abandoning the deeply emotional love songs which characterized his critically acclaimed 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear. Instead, he turns to crushingly depressing and frequently hilarious social and political satire. Pure Comedy is an incredibly dense album, extending to nearly an hour and a half and containing some absolutely beautifully written commentary on the issues plaguing humanity as a whole, including some very self-aware analysis and criticism of himself as a speaker, a musician and a human.
Almost nothing escapes Tillman’s cynical eye – capitalism, religion, the political divide and the entertainment industry all receive scathing takedowns from a largely nihilistic perspective. Since the self-inflicted destruction of humanity is so clearly imminent, what else are we to do but laugh at ourselves?
Even though things are much more focused on what Tillman has to say here, the musical aspects are far from relegated to the background. These tracks are all based on acoustic guitar loops and elements of rock piano, but the variation between tracks, usually to fit a theme, means even the most repetitive of instrumentals stays interesting and appropriate. Some of the tracks about religion utilize aspects of gospel music to their full ironic potential, while the joyous pounding on the piano takes over some others, accompanied by celebratory brass sections, when Tillman is speaking about the perfect utopian world advertised to us.
The instrumental is stripped back and repetitive when Tillman gets most introspective, such as on the 13-minute “Leaving LA”, but the analysis of ourselves that he offers is so striking and profound that serviceable and pleasant instrumentals containing a few interlocking aspects and great musicianship is almost more than we can ask for in addition. It’s for the best that the music never distracts us from what he has to say.
Tillman has the perfect voice for the delivery of these hard truths, smooth and capable but very matter-of-fact, with the ability to pack emotion into his delivery without increasing in volume. It’s almost as if he is trying his best to prevent from breaking down and crying at any moment. However, the real magic of this album is its lyrical content. Incredibly detailed, he weaves philosophical and literary references and dark humour into vivid description of post-apocalyptic societies and the human condition.
In a terrifying and hilarious track, “The Ballad Of The Dying Man”, the titular character wonders who will critique the “pretentious, ignorant voices” of the “homophobes, hipsters and 1%” once he, and his superior opinions, are gone. He checks his Facebook news feed one more time before taking his final breath. “Total Entertainment Forever” is the album’s most upbeat and triumphant track, commenting on how technology is encompassing our lives and leading to our deaths. Tillman issues the most sarcastic “na na na come on” of all time before closing the track with the image of a historian finding corpses plugged into hubs, “a frozen smile on every face” as we escape from the real-life hell we wrought in virtual reality.
“When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay” skewers religion, envisioning a confused Death on Judgement Day saying that Earth is similar to the Hell he is about to take them to, as the speaker informs God that his creation of flawed beings was bound to fail from the start – “Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored”. There are so many fantastic lyrical concepts on this album I wish I could fit into this review.
Tillman takes it upon himself to make most of the criticisms I could make about this album first. “Leaving LA” is a 13-minute epic addressing Tillman’s displeasure with the industry’s treatment of artists in his vein, before attacking himself for the 2nd half of the song. He envisions his critics: “That’s just what we all need, another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously”, losing fans as he delivers a “10-verse chorus-less diatribe”, while they say “I used to like this guy, this new s**t really kinda makes me want to die”.
It is true that repetition of vocal melody and instrumental can get somewhat tiresome, but the only real time I was taken out of the experience was the extended instrumental section on “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”. Tillman’s commentary is what elevates the typical folk backgrounds to something special. However, his diversion from the theme on “Smoochie”, a track dedicated to his wife’s ability to keep him sane, and a failing attempt to convey meaning with blunter lyrics regarding the political divide on “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” are two aspects which detract from the awe-inspiring stream of consciousness which dominates the rest of the album.
Pure Comedy is the perfect soundtrack to the world we live in today. There is really nobody like Tillman making such in-depth songs right now, so if you don’t mind being served a hefty dose of reality, this is one of the year’s greatest albums so far.
Favourite Tracks: Pure Comedy, Ballad of the Dying Man, The Memo, When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay, Leaving LA
Least Favourite Track: Two Wildly Different Perspectives