Joshua Tillman saw little success last decade, even with a highly prolific output. He released a whopping eight albums that failed to draw much attention. After a drumming stint for Fleet Foxes, Tillman created Father John Misty, an alter-ego that finally began to turn some heads. With this reinvention came quirkier songs and sprawling, orchestral instrumentation that soared on Fear Fun in 2012 and on I Love You, Honeybear in 2015. Tillman is back with Pure Comedy, an album that explores his commentary side.
Front to back, the instrumentation on this record is gorgeous. It begins with the title track, immediately bringing to mind piano rock powerhouses like Elton John or Randy Newman. Tillman’s signature dynamics shine through flawlessly as the song builds in intensity, aided by an orchestra and blaring horns. As the album’s first single, it remains the best and most memorable track.
The pace picks up with “Total Entertainment Forever,” perhaps the most upbeat song on the entire record, and the first to introduce a sort of country flavor to the mix. It’s one of Tillman’s most pop songs yet, and it’s a good bit of fun to listen to amongst the more melancholy songs that follow.
“Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” is next, a song characterised again by fantastic horns, but this time with a roaring section of beautiful distortion in the middle. “Ballad of the Dying Man” is another standout track, and one that is reminiscent of I Love You, Honeybear. It’s a display of Tillman’s skill in composing melodies, as his vocal range is all over the place without sounding overbearing.
“Birdie” and “Leaving LA” are two of the weakest pieces, as musically they are flat-out uninteresting, and they both meander for far too long. While “Birdie” does eventually get somewhat engrossing as an organ joins the piano ballad, “Leaving LA” is not only the longest song on the album, but it is also the most forgettable. A single two line melody over gentle strumming fails to hold attention for a colossal thirteen minutes, despite the appearance of beautiful, swelling strings towards the middle. By the seven minute mark, it begins to feels pointless, and it becomes a poor attempt at creating meaningful extended songs à la Sufjan Stevens or Swans.
Fortunately, after “Leaving LA” the album resumes with effortlessly wavering between country-influenced tunes (“A Bigger Paper Bag,” “Smoochie,” “The Memo”) and bouncy piano ballads (“When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”). Pure Comedy ends on a very high note, with the heart-wrenching “I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain,” a song that actually does manage to hold attention for a solid ten minutes, and “In Twenty Years or So.” These tracks are simply epic, with Tillman pulling out all the stops with his orchestral prowess.
Pure Comedy is possibly Tillman’s greatest achievement musically, but his lyrics on this record are highly inconsistent. It is well known that Father John Misty thinks he is smarter than everyone else, that he is the king of “postmodern irony,” and that if you disagree, you just “don’t get it.” On Pure Comedy, Tillman took a shot at capturing all the strange, frustrating quirks of mankind. Sometimes he’s hilariously clever, but other times, he’s worthy of an eyeroll. Here are some good examples of his wit at its best:
On “Pure Comedy”: Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy / Just waiting until the part where they start to believe / They’re at the center of everything / And some all-powerful being / Endowed this horror show with meaning.
On “Total Entertainment Forever”: When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes / Plugged into our hubs
Skin and bones / A frozen smile on every face / As the stories replay / This must have been a wonderful place.
On “Ballad of the Dying Man”: Eventually the dying man takes his final breath / But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss / And it occurs to him a little late in the game / We leave as clueless as we came / From rented heavens to the shadows in the cave / We’ll all be wrong someday.
Here are some stinkers:
On “Pure Comedy”: Oh, their religions are the best / They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed / With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks / These unbelievable outfits. Edgy!
On “Birdie”: Some dream of a world written in lines of code / Well, I hope they engineer out politics, romance, and edifice / Two outta three ain’t bad.
Admittedly, it is refreshing to hear some commentary that is not so overtly politically, or conspicuously one-sided; the charts are oversaturated with anti-Trump songs that at the end of the day contribute nothing new. At least Tillman tries to steer away from that, but he goes about it in a way that is occasionally so pretentious, so holier-than-thou, that it begs the question: if the world is as bad as he says, what do we do about it? The sum of the lyrics are neither astute enough to be uniquely observant nor urgent enough to be inspiring.
Pure Comedy sounds fantastic, leaving hope that Father John Misty still has a truly great album in him. If only Tilmann had turned down the snarkiness just a tad, down to levels like on I Love You, Honeybear, then he would have cemented his place in the indie cannon. Until then, it seems that all his subtlety was in his beard.
Key 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,” “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”