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Review: Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy Isn’t as Interesting As His Persona

Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, is something of a rarity—a bona fide indie rock star in an era where the relevance of what we call “indie rock” has largely diminished, whose mouthy interviews and louche affectations have won him as much attention as his actual music. Contemporary culture has produced no shortage of successful musicians, but not a lot of interesting ones, and Tillman has hipped himself to a game that rewards artists who seemingly go out of their way to not be boring.

Emerging from the agrarian dreamscape of Fleet Foxes, where he played drums, Tillman rocketed to notoriety following a majestic late show performance of “Bored in the USA.” Finally more than “the guy from Fleet Foxes with a solo record,” Tillman presented as an immediately charismatic hirsute lounge lizard, drolly pacing the stage like a Great Man with a lot on his mind. His breakthrough album, I Love You, Honeybear, paired lovey-dovey flutterings over his wife with cynical appraisals of human nature and homey, flowering instrumentation, as if Gram Parsons was conducting an orchestra. His lyrics could be a little abrasive, but the music was unavoidably seductive, and darker thoughts usually gave way toward optimistic views of how love could be enough to overcome the bullshit of modern life.

On Pure Comedy, his latest, Tillman’s reserves of optimism have seemingly run bone dry. While the Honeybear attention got him into better festival slots and rarefied recording sessions with Lady Gaga and Beyonce, it also heightened his simmering unease with the whole entertainment-industrial complex, which boiled over into near-nihilism by the time Trump got elected. Here he is, in a note attached to the album: “Pure Comedy is the story of a species born with a half-formed brain.” Here he is again, with a somewhat dim view of humanity’s incessant conflict: “Things are the way they are because this is how we, the human race, want them.” It might’ve been alternately titled Pure Ideology, or The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment to Rip Bongs and Bitch About Life.

So he’s not really in a fun mood, and the music follows. The lushness has diminished, and the work evokes increasing comparisons to ‘70s singer-songwriters like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, who hid their acidic commentary within sturdy pop structures. The first thing we hear is the crackling of TV studio chatter, before Tillman sits down at his piano to offer a creation myth about our poor, addled race—“The comedy of man starts like this”—his voice slowly ascending to a rage-lined roar, his commentary briefly interrupted by a saxophone cutting through the keys like a scythe. His piano is more dominant here than it was on Honeybear; with some light re-arranging, it might’ve been the only instrument. The intimacy created by that piano is counterbalanced by the vitriol of his observations: Earth is “a godless rock that refuses to die,” while human nature means “every monster has a code / One that steadies the shaking hand / When he’s determined to accrue more capital by whatever means he can.”

The problem and the solution are summed up by two literary references, which stand out amongst all the gloomy characterizations. “Total Entertainment Forever”—that’s the one with the line about sleeping with Taylor Swift—imagines a world where any pleasure or experience is available to use through virtual reality, and ends up in a dark place. “When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes,” he sings, “Plugged into our hubs / skin and bones / A frozen smile on every face.” This garners comparisons to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which the titular device is a videotape that provides an all-consuming entertainment, causing people to lose all agency when they watch it. Wallace’s dystopian novel imagined a heavily branded future existing within a collapsed world order, when the old borders have given way and the country is dominated by drug addicts, athletic obsessives, and people who are both. The underlying neuroses don’t need too much explanation, obviously.

The other reference is to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which a young man visits a sanatorium to visit his cousin and ends up staying for seven years, persuaded by the doctors that his failing health needs constant treatment. When he leaves, World War I begins. In Tillman’s song, he stays on the mountain forever, drinking wine and retaining his youth indefinitely. “The longer I stay here / The longer there’s no future,” he sings. The ruminative quality of his singing gives no reason to believe he’s being disingenuous about the escape he secretly craves.

Pardon the unavoidable banality of this observation, but a large part of Tillman’s appeal is his basic skill at saying words; he works could-be clunkers like “meta-data in aggregate” and “Oculus Rift” into his melodies without missing a beat, and Pure Comedy is best when Tillman’s lotion-smooth, sonorous voice stretches out a biting phrase. A line like “Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok / And all the the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked” on “Ballad of the Dying Man” could fit on a men’s rights blog, but Tillman imbues it with sing-songy charm. Pure Comedy is filled with these little melodic pleasures, which counter the accusation that for all the sharp couplets, this record might’ve been better off as a blog post.

Take “Leaving LA,” a thirteen-minute autobiography weaving together encounters with Los Angeles phonies, memories of going to JC Penny, Sophocles and Fleetwood Mac references, existential meditations on race and class and what it really means to be a songwriter, that contains some of the most descriptive and passionate writing of Tillman’s career. If you someone asked, “What is this Father John Misty guy about?” you could save yourself the argument by passing over the song—it sums up everything his work addresses.

It’s also sort of a forgettable listen, on the other hand, backed by some subtle orchestral instrumentation and occasionally interrupted by some of the record’s limpest harmonizing, in which Tillman moans like he’s eking out an especially pathetic orgasm. Tillman said he spent three years writing the song, and it’s indeed an impressive writing feat, but it’s hard to imagine hearing more than once. Several other songs don’t offer much more enjoyment beyond their clever writing, and even that’s not always the case. (The supposedly deep “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is particularly shallow, and musically listless.)

Or maybe that’s the point. Part of the frustrating thing about Tillman is how carefully he’s hedged his bets to guard against all potential critiques. (On “Leaving LA”: “Mara taunts me ‘neath the tree / She’s like, ‘Oh, great, that’s just what they all need / Another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.”) Perhaps the unlistenable parts of Pure Comedy are intentionally so, a “fuck off” to the norms who thought him just a charming, handsome yukster good for an afternoon festival set. It makes for a sort of masterful gag, to combat the ceaseless churn of modern commerce by tricking several industries into taking you seriously, only to crap your pants by choice. (Think of Lou Reed following his commercial breakthrough Sally Can’t Dance with the commercially poisonous Metal Machine Music.)

But though Tillman’s attitude is carefully blasé, he’s deeply preoccupied with what people think; he frequently attempts to justify himself in both song and interview, which makes him as insecure as anyone else who spends too much time on Twitter. The existence of this record means somebody’s supposed to enjoy it, and as someone who loved Honeybear, large swaths of Pure Comedy feel like a misstep. It’s great for burnishing the myth of Josh Tillman, the uncompromising truth teller in a sea of grifters, but while the concept is very prescient for our current global moment, it isn’t reinforced by the actual music, which is largely hookless and dirge-like and not altogether engaging.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. At the end of the album, Tillman imagines himself drinking with his lover at a bar. He’s read somewhere that the human experiment will end in twenty years, but he hears the piano player doing Talking Heads, and finds a moment of peace. “I look at you, as our second drinks arrive,” he sings, “and it’s a miracle to be alive.” The music is almost non-existent; he might as well just be saying what’s on his mind. In an album of pointed arguments, it’s an utterly unguarded moment, and completely convincing.