Album Review: Pure Comedy by Father John Misty
Josh Tillman has become a celebrity over the course of the last couple of years. He achieved moderate notoriety as the drummer for the Fleet Foxes, and after a series of more sombre albums under the moniker ‘J. Tillman’, but Father John Misty – the cynical, self-loathing maverick who, in 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, allowed himself to love – he has become something of a star. Nominated for a Brit Award for Best International male (yes, that’s him staring at his phone as the winner is announced at 0:15), newsworthy rants about the concepts and failings of entertainment and politics and interviews about his regular LSD habit, mental health and self-destructive behaviours have all contributed to Josh Tillman becoming an unlikely rock star. He might even be a pop star, I doubt even he really knows; the lines are blurred and Tillman falls somewhere in between – perhaps echoing the Groucho Marx quote ‘I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member’. One thing we know for sure though is that his lyrics have always been on-the-money. His prowess on his FJM debut, Fear Fun, was plain from the outset – in ‘Nancy From Now On’, for example, there are lines like ‘I got my right-hand stamped / In the concentration camp where my organs scream slow down, man’, and in ILYHB, his even better follow-up, there’s rarely a misplaced utterance. Such success has landed him co-writing credits on Beyoncé’s Hold Up and on two Lady Gaga tracks – he’s been getting attention from some of the biggest names in pop.
When Pure Comedy was announced early in 2017 it seemed as if a tonal shift had begun for ‘Father John Misty’ if not ‘Josh Tillman’. The eponymous track, released just days after the inauguration of President Trump featured footage of the ceremony in its music video, and the lyrics were similarly political – it was ‘Bored in the USA’ on steroids. ‘Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them? / What makes these clowns the idolize so remarkable?’ he calls out before a brass led instrumental, building up to an impressive musical climax – ‘And how’s this for irony, / Their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs that they never ever have to leave, / Oh, Comedy!’ The song ‘Pure Comedy’ is, in a way, a microcosm for the album Pure Comedy – cynical lyrics, an outsiders perspective on our failings as a western society, accompanied by a big band, before ending on a somewhat upbeat, or at least, reconciliatory note. It’s a great opening song for the album, but also along with the second track ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ (in which he references having sex with Taylor Swift via VR pornography – ‘Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift’ – which accrued him a rush of online abuse after his performance of this track on SNL), the most poppy. It’s as if Tillman is gently lowering us into a new era of FJM – two transitionary tracks which allow us to adjust to his new subject matter.
The album tracks remain political lyrically for the most part – ‘Two Wildly Different Perspectives’, Tillman juxtaposes the sombre lyrics, denoting the polarisation and extreme-partisanship in American politics, with a piano-led accompaniment which wouldn’t be out of place as part of a climactic film score. His songwriting focuses on religion and human nature in ‘When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay’, once again absolving humanity of any guilt for its supposed deplorable antics by suggesting at the end how can God fault people for being like him – ‘Oh, My Lord, / We just want light in the dark, / Some warm in the cold, / And to make something out of nothing sounds like someone else I know’. It also features some dry Tillman comedy which we came to enjoy in ILYHB, with ‘Try something less ambitious next time you get bored’. The album’s closing track, ‘In Twenty Years or So’, is Tillman’s apocalyptic premonition of the near future if humanity continues down the road it’s going on, before descending into strings and drums working hand-in-hand to take us to the end of the record – ‘There’s nothing to fear’, repeats Tillman.
The two tracks I would especially like to highlight are two of the least political on the album – the thirteen-minute ‘Leaving LA’ and the ten-minute ‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’. These two songs are introspective, and intensely beautiful lyrically and musically. ‘Leaving LA’ has ten verses and no chorus – and apparently took three years to write. It examines identity, memory and self-worth, while looking at his own personal journey to fame and success. It feels as if we’re creeping into Tillman’s head: honest, ultimately devoid of the FJM persona, full of self-doubt, an observer of himself and society. The strings which underpin the track are intensely beautiful too, but the lyrics, as always with Tillman’s work, are the focus. ‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’ is all about Tillman’s realisation of youth’s impermanence, and wanting to savour each moment which by nature has to escape into memory. ‘The slower the better, / cos there’s no one old on Magic Mountain’, which he contextualises through the image of the aftermath of a raucous party. As with most Tillman songs, he comes to a revelatory moment by the end – that his life can’t move on if he’s young forever. These two songs will, in my mind, become instant FJM classics, and rightly so – they’re must listen tracks.
Overall the album has a consistent musical tone – it feels like an album as opposed to a collection of thirteen songs. Piano, strings, brass, slow drums and subtle acoustic guitar give the album its feel, inherently linking these songs together, which only enhances the brilliance of the lyrics. It’s a rare 2017-album you could listen to front to back, but it is a long one, clocking in at over 73-minutes. This album is, as I’m sure you can probably tell I feel by now, excellent – there isn’t a bad track or ‘filler’ anywhere to be found, the lyrics are sublime and it shows just how much more confident Tillman is musically after two albums of success. It builds on what went was great about FF and ILYHB while exploring different themes to create my favourite album of 2017 so far, and, for me, it’ll be hard to top. Tillman talks a lot about entertainment, but Pure Comedy isn’t entertainment, it’s art.