Many of the world’s recent political developments have been so impetuous and counterintuitive that they were completely unanticipated, with a worrying amount of offhand jokes made in sitcoms years ago becoming reality. Whether or not one is pleased with such unforeseen changes, it’s hard to deny the comical unpredictability of such alterations, with more and more people becoming so disenfranchised from sociopolitical discussion due to the dichotomous division on practically every topic that laughing at the chaos as it unfolds is all some people can do as a means of coming to terms with the current human condition. The latest album from renowned singer-songwriter Josh Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes fame and now recording under the pseudonym of Father John Misty, Pure Comedy, is the manifestation of such apprehensions, concentrated within an album that plays out like a feature-length documentary of one detached and depraved man’s experiences living in 2017. Tillman’s role in this cosmic joke is not one of a grand commentator or moral entrepreneur, rather the artist resigns himself to the lowest rung on society’s ladder, only being able to justify the world around him through universal mockery. Indeed, Pure Comedy, ultimately, serves no purpose, and Tillman himself acknowledges this. The whole record is an enormous exercise in nihilism, with the singer seldom arriving at any comforting conclusions, instead derogating anything and everything, even himself and the entire concept of releasing a 74-minute album that reaches no conclusion and offers no solutions to the issues it handles. As far as self-awareness goes, it appears in abundance on Pure Comedy, with Tillman being sure to deconstruct his own character through expressions of self-deprecating anxiety, reassuring the listener that he is espousing no metanarratives, rather he is merely throwing his two cents in amongst a pile of 14 billion pennies. In the context of the Father John Misty back-catalogue, Pure Comedy seeks to expand on the audacious arc of self-analysis featured on Tillman’s previous album, I Love You, Honeybear, and apply it to a grander and more politically-focussed narrative. Considering that Tillman touched on issues of a political nature on his last record, most notably on the track Bored in the USA, this isn’t an entirely new endeavour for the musician, but the sheer breadth of his undertaking on Pure Comedy is a huge change and challenge in itself. Musically speaking, Father John Misty’s latest release is, in certain aspects, more ambitious than I Love You, Honeybear, in that every single song on the album is essentially a lengthy ballad, comprised of a stripped-back, 70s-inspired, guitar- or piano-orientated instrumental that leaves a lot of space in the mix, as to allow Tillman the room needed to articulate his verbose and convoluted observations. In this regard, although the timbre of many of these songs is certainly fitting given the loquacity of the artist’s lyricism, there is most definitely room for a heightened willingness to take as many instrumental risks as lyrical risks on Pure Comedy. Nonetheless, with Tillman’s witty diatribes being the focal point of this album, the musician is undoubtedly successful in maintaining the listener’s attention throughout, whether they agree with him or not, with a caustic cynicism that is as hilarious as it is depressing.
The beginning of Pure Comedy aptly sees Tillman reflecting on the beginning of human life on the opening title-track, with the singer restating the popular, if debatable, obstetrical dilemma, that being the scientific hypothesis concerning the conflicting evolutionary forces of hominids developing large brains, whilst also developing the ability to walk upright, which results in a smaller pelvic area. This is used to explain the difficulty with which female humans give birth, with many of our closest ancestors delivering their young with relative ease and no need for help from others. To open an album with such an esoteric reference seems odd on the surface, but Tillman uses this potential biological impasse as a means of considering the state of humans being born into the world. With the musician even addressing this first verse to “babies”, Tillman postulates that humans are born incomplete, with nature having reduced our brain capacities in order to allow us to be brought into the world. As such, the artist acknowledges the intense burden of responsibility on the carers of newborns to guide them through life and ensure that they are restored the knowledge they were denied through this “alternative” conceived by nature. The next stage of this cosmic prank is addressed in Tillman’s second general observation, that being that, with human infants left so vulnerable and utterly defenceless, a natural duty falls on the mother, as the child’s nurturer, to protect her young, putting women at an inherent disadvantage to men. Without reaching any hopeful resolution, Tillman merely laughs at the idea that people would then believe that an omnipotent creator instilled any meaning in any of this, which marks the transition from folksy observations about nature to the sardonic political commentary of Pure Comedy. Indeed, religion is a common target of criticism from the singer on this album, chastising it as being an egoistic conviction to find a grand meaning in everything. Another group routinely condemned by Tillman across the record is those who are easily offended, with the musician lambasting both this group and religion in one of the funniest lines on the record, as he teases those “who get terribly upset / When you question their sacred texts / Written by woman-hating epileptics”. Later on in the tracklisting, Tillman’s mockery of religion turns bitter, as the singer evokes some of the knowledge he acquired through his experiences being raised in a strict Christian household, with the song When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay being an ironic, but nevertheless sincere, judging of God by Tillman, rather than vice versa. Recalling arcane Christian imagery, the artist suggests Earth to be a hell in itself, with “the pale horse” himself — that being Death, as personified in the Book of Revelations — surely being sickened by human society. Hell as a place on Earth, resulting from human agency, is a concept touched upon once again on Two Wildly Different Perspectives, a song that, as the title suggests, laments the polarisation of American politics, leading to two opposing and unmoving groups, entirely unwilling to consider the other side of the argument. As for Two Wildly Different Perspectives, Tillman’s remarks regarding the sorry state of polarised politics are disappointingly superficial when compared with his lyrical detail on the rest of the record, with the musician simply exemplifying instances of divisions in contemporary politics, rather than actively interacting with these scenarios in any significant way. However, this track is an exception on Pure Comedy, with all the other aforementioned songs exhibiting an eclectic understanding of their respective subject matter, as Tillman guides the listener through his thought processes with fluidity and cohesion.
One of the most striking and, overall, impressive ways in which Tillman tackles issues within the current sociopolitical arena is through his own interactions with these topics, with entire songs on Pure Comedy being dedicated to dismantling and critiquing the singer himself. Ballad of the Dying Man is a prime example of this, and one of the most humorous songs on the record. The entire premise of Tillman’s narrative on this track is the joking disparagement of a man who believes his personal opinions to be so important that he seeks to share them with the world. Sound familiar? The lyrics are a grand hyperbole that detail a man on his death bed, amusingly anxious about the state he is leaving the world in, brooding over who will take up the baton and critique “the homophobes, hipsters and 1% / The false feminists he’d managed to detect”, after which he quickly takes one final scroll through his social media feeds before he croaks. When it comes to self-examination, however, Leaving LA, by far the longest cut on Pure Comedy at over 13 minutes in length, is absolutely pivotal to the album’s arc, being, in the song’s own words, a “10-verse, chorus-less diatribe”, first focussing on the culture of Los Angeles, before Tillman turns the magnifying glass on himself. Such a long-winded and unconventionally structured ballad is not typical of Tillman’s music at all, with his stream of consciousness-style harangue being more evocative of something from the latest Sun Kil Moon record, which is apt, given that Mark Kozelek jokingly name-dropped Father John Misty on the song Philadelphia Cop. This being said, whilst the lyrical attitude employed by Tillman is reminiscent of Kozelek’s stylings, the formatting of Leaving LA runs almost like one of Bob Dylan’s amusingly lengthy, story-driven songs, such as on a song like Highlands from his 1997 album, Time Out of Mind. With Tillman accepting himself as being “another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously”, this could essentially be the mission statement of Pure Comedy, but there is humour to be found in this itself, and therein lies what seems to be the modus operandi of the album; everything can be, and should be, made fun of, and Tillman is simply contributing his part to this infinite comedy.
As for the music on Pure Comedy, as previously stated, Tillman’s approach to structuring these songs is clearly centred around how the placement of the lyrics would work on top of the instrumentals. However, whilst the music surely takes a backseat to the narrative of the album, that’s not to say there is any shortage of compelling performances or compositional prowess on display here. The beautiful deliveries of soft piano ballads like the title-track brush aside any accusations of triteness for these sparse arrangements, with the expressiveness of Tillman’s voice remaining consistently crisp, even retaining clarity as he reaches into his falsetto range on songs like Things It Would Be Useful to Know Before the Revolution, arousing a stronger feeling of urgency in his words. What’s more, not every song on Pure Comedy follows such an elementary, linear structure, with a track like Total Entertainment Forever, which is far more in keeping with the style of songwriting featured on I Love You, Honeybear, not detracting from Tillman’s witty lines with its more indulgent arrangement. The obscure, minor chord progressions across this composition are slightly suggestive of some of Elvis Costello’s work on an album like Spike, but the ravishing timbre, consisting of bright, buoyant horns, peppy piano lines and upbeat drumming, is unmistakably the campiness associated with the Father John Misty moniker. If anything, such flamboyant arrangements bring further attention to Tillman’s words, as he delivers some of his wittiest lines in his picking apart of the direction of the entertainment industry, epitomised by the opening couplet, “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift”. Indeed, the compositional stylings of Pure Comedy certainly assist Tillman’s storytelling rather effectively for the most part, however there are also more subtle instances of word painting, with the artist employing sonic techniques as a means of reflecting their respective lyrical themes. The aforementioned When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay, for instance, ironically makes use of a traditional choir, with even the airy quality to the recording of these gospel vocals sounding as if they were captured in a church. Perhaps the most striking example of word painting on the entire record, however, shows up on The Memo, which was the first track teased prior to the release of Pure Comedy and seemingly serves as an all-encompassing critique of nearly every aspect of contemporary American culture one could fathom, from sport to technology and from something as broad as the arts to something as specific as customer service. With the piece having followed a relatively basic piano ballad structure until its bridge, the theatrical performance stops dead after the stand-alone chorus, at which point somewhat of an electronic, postmodern interlude breaks out. As the emotionless, text-to-speech, female voice attempts to comfort the listener, distracting them with recommendations of cheerful indie playlists, Tillman, through a tinny, robotic vocal effect, intermittently asks weighty questions, such as, “How would you rate yourself in terms of sex appeal and cultural significance?” and, “Are you feeling depressed?” The sheer emotional emptiness of the hollow distractions offered by the text-to-speech voice mirror the shallow narcissism of society touched on during the rest of the track, with Tillman’s recurrent expressions of concern towards the listener starkly detailing the pain he feels about the state of things, seemingly reaching out to others who may feel the same way. Indeed, although it seems that Tillman sacrificed the accessibility of his previous musical stylings in order to convey his hefty philosophical screeds, it’s not as if the thoughts of the artist could have merely been written down and published as a selection of poems, as the way in which the pieces themselves interact with the narrative of the album is imperative to its development, often starkly fortifying the message that Tillman is trying to get across.
Upon first listening to Pure Comedy, the main question on my mind was the extent to which it stacks up against Father John Misty’s previous album, but it has transpired that the ways in which this new album can be compared to I Love You, Honeybear are rather narrow. Sure, the premise of the political arc of Pure Comedy seems to be rooted in the conceptual nature of I Love You, Honeybear, with songs such as Bored in the USA and Holy Shit almost acting as precursors to this album, but the sheer scope of Tillman’s approach to his latest studio effort, with lyrical tirades as long as the loose, linear compositions that accompany them, leaves only limited common ground between these two releases. As such, Pure Comedy is best scrutinised as an undertaking the likes of which Tillman has yet to endeavour and, in this regard, it stands as a very strong venture. From a critical perspective, it is certainly easy to see how the long, free-flowing pieces may discourage many listeners, and there are certainly a few instances, such as on Two Wildly Different Perspectives and Smoochie, wherein Tillman’s thoughts could have been developed beyond the surface level he establishes, but beyond these gripes, Pure Comedy is fantastically genuine, both conceptually and sonically. Not only are the artist’s observations witty, self-aware and cogent, but the extent to which he interacts with these underlying themes, through balanced self-analysis and instances of word painting, is a masterful marrying of irony and sincerity, with every aspect of this record being a joke in itself. Just as Tillman pokes fun at himself for conceiving such an album, he seems to make fun of both those who would praise this album and those who would disregard it as pretentious, so, in a sense, in arguably overanalysing this project to the extent that I have, I am part of the gag. We all are, and that’s wherein the beauty of Pure Comedy lies.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10