Premature Evaluation: Father John Misty Pure Comedy
There’s a moment early in The End Of The Tour, the 2015 movie where Jason Segel plays David Foster Wallace, where Jesse Eisenberg — playing David Lipsky, the writer who will spend the movie road-tripping with Wallace to write a Rolling Stone profile about him — finally sits down to read Infinite Jest. Lipsky is a novelist himself, and he hasn’t been able to break through on any real level. That’s why he’s working at Rolling Stone. So when this new guy comes along, generating furious hype and promising to upend the entire idea of literature as we know it, Lipsky gets understandably grumpy. And then he finally sits down with Wallace’s Infinite Jest, cracks it open, and, a couple of minutes later, mutters “shit” to himself. Wallace really is that good, and it pisses Lipsky off. You could be forgiven for feeling the same way about Pure Comedy, the new Father John Misty album.
Right now, Josh Tillman is in the midst of one of the most entertaining and aggravating press tours in recent memory. He’s said that pop stars are like prisoners. He’s fumed about “the intersectional-virtue-warrior style of music writing.” He’s attempted to explain the creepiest, most risible line on his new album — “Bedding Taylor Swift every night in the Oculus Rift” — by saying that this is simply the way technology is going and that he considers this to be a future worth warning against. He shared three nameless “Generic Pop Song” songs — songs so successful at their stated goal that I forgot what I was listening to when I was listening to them — and then promptly deleted them. In my role as a music blogger, I’ve come to detest writing these stories about Tillman; it’s not fun to sit there writing about a guy who is openly making fun of you. But when other people write those stories, I always read them. Everyone does. Every blog post about some shit Father John Misty says in an interview does mucho traffic.
Tillman was, of course, a morosely sincere singer-songwriter and Fleet Fox before he adapted the Father John Misty name and persona (which he says is not a persona). You can understand why he left all that alone; it got him nowhere, and being Father John Misty gets him everywhere. And yet there’s something toxic about Father John Misty’s arch, all-knowing omnidirectional mockery. Two years ago, I watched Tillman sing Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” while giving a random girl, pulled from the Coachella audience, a lapdance on a giant wicker chair. The girl seemed happy but embarrassed. Tillman preyed on that happiness and embarrassment like a vulture. She was not being given a treat, like the fans who used to be pulled from the crowd for lapdances at Janet Jackson or Nicki Minaj shows were. She was being made the butt, directly or indirectly, of one of Tillman’s grand and sweeping quasi-jokes. It was gross. And yet the same impulses that lead Tillman to stage a stunt like that are the ones that led him to create Pure Comedy. And Pure Comedy is fucking brilliant. Shit.
With each Father John Misty album, Tillman sets for himself ridiculously lofty goals, and he somehow makes good on them. With 2012’s Fear Fun, it was the process of becoming this new invention. With 2015’s still-staggering I Love You, Honeybear, it was the nature of romantic love, written in the gobsmacked wake of Tillman’s own marriage. And now, with Pure Comedy, Tillman is interested in nothing short of human life on the planet Earth itself — “this bright blue marble, orbited by trash,” as he phrases it. That is an absurdly grand subject, and Tillman has gone to absurd lengths to capture it. Pure Comedy stretches 13 songs over nearly 80 minutes. It’s got strings and pianos and one self-reflexive 13-minute epic that includes a verse about how Tillman imagines how much all his old fans will hate it. It’s indulgent and overstuffed and pretentious and way too long — descriptors that also apply, come to think of it, to Infinite Jest. (Next time, someone please warn me before I’m about to read a thousand-page book that doesn’t even have a fucking ending.) If the format didn’t make it impossible, Pure Comedy would probably have footnotes. And much like Infinite Jest, Pure Comedy justifies all the noise because it really is that fucking good.
Tillman, like Wallace, is an absolute motherfucker of a writer. Even when he’s making a fairly facile point, like the obligatory one about all the time and energy we put into impressing strangers on the internet, he chooses words that make it sting: “As the world is getting smaller, small things take up your time / Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online.” “Leaving LA,” the aforementioned 13-minute song, might be the world’s most sweeping and expansive “Why I Left [Populous City X]” Tumblr post, but it gives Tillman the chance to throw some absolute daggers, and then to turn those daggers on himself: “These LA phonies and their bullshit bands / Sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant / So reads the pullquote from my latest cover piece / Entitled ‘The Oldest Man in Folk Rock Speaks.'” Tillman dedicates all of “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution” to imagining daily life after some kind of environmental and economic apocalypse, and it makes for the wittiest piece of dystopian fiction I’ve seen since, I don’t know, Escape From New York: “From time to time, we all get a bit restless with no one advertising to us constantly.”
There’s an overarching idea to the whole album, and it’s this: Human beings are ridiculous, craven, dumb, self-interested entities running around and ruining the planet on which they live and persecuting one another for beliefs that shouldn’t even conflict that much. And Tillman, of course, sees all this as inherently funny. It’s a comedy, a tragic one. A few of the album’s lyrics are straight-up mordant one-liners: “It’s like my father said before he croaked / ‘Son, you’re killing me’ and ‘That’s all, folks!'” But those parts are rare; Tillman is more interested in investigating absurdity: “Just wait until the part where they start to believe / They’re at the center of everything / And some all-powerful being / Endowed this horrorshow with meaning.”
There’s a vaguely offputting FJM-explains-it-all feeling to this whole thing; on some level, it’s not too different from Bill Maher devoting an entire theatrically released documentary to the idea that people’s most deeply held beliefs are bullshit. But there is context here. Tillman, after all, grew up in a fanatical, repressive fundamentalist-Christian family. There was no secular music allowed in his house, and he didn’t even hear the Beatles until he was 18. (That aforementioned Amy Grant line hits harder because Tillman absolutely knows exactly what Amy Grant sounds like.) This is to say: Tillman spent the first half of his life, thus far, being forced into a belief system that did what it could to make sense of everything, to divide the sacred believers from the armies of doomed nonbelievers. And so Pure Comedy, as I see it, is his attempt to explore the idea that there is no overarching order to the way the world works, and to find some beauty and comfort in that, even when he’s just laughing at the ridiculous.
And Pure Comedy isn’t all acerbic dark comedy. As with I Love You, Honeybear, the Tillman of Pure Comedy has a way of attacking you with moments of genuine, cutting sentiment at the instant you least expect them. On “Birdie,” he compares the life of a bird, landing in the middle of Los Angeles, to a roiling humanity that can’t figure out shit; it’s small and lovely. “Smoochie” is a straight-up love song, the type that could’ve appeared on I Love You, Honeybear, about the way another person can help bring us back to earth when we’re disappearing into darkness. For some reason, the bit that hits the hardest is the verse from “Leaving LA” that Tillman spends describing his first memory of music: choking on a piece of candy and almost dying in a JC Penny while Fleetwood Mac’s 1987 single “Little Lies” seeped in over the speakers. “That’s when I first heard the comedy won’t stop for / All the little boys dying in department stores.” And with the album’s final moment, Tillman muses that it’s a miracle to be alive — which is both a contradiction of all the cynicism that’s come before and an absolute conclusion to all the silliness, the warmth that’s been thrumming underneath it the whole time.
Musically, too, there is nothing but beauty here. As a singer, Tillman has grown over the years, and he’s better now than he’s ever been. His voice, these days, is pure honey, and he’s become more confident about the ways he uses it. Even in his darkest lyrical moments, he delivers everything with a soul singer’s sense of tenderness. A song like “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” works better as a straight-up vocal showcase than as a mediation on self-defeating political divisions. The arrangements, too, are fuller and prettier than they’ve ever been. Tillman co-produced the album with old collaborator Jonathan Wilson, and the only real big-name guest is composer Nico Muhly, who lends string arrangements to the album’s final song. But it sounds like a grand and big-budget production, everything coming through with crystalline cinematic force. The synths on “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain” are Radiohead-level pretty, and “Leaving LA” never wears thin over 13 minutes partly because the music finds such smart and subtle ways to keep moving without ever losing the song’s thread. On a sonic level, it’s been years since I’ve heard anyone attempt this level of unapologetic grandeur. And the last person I heard combine acerbic lyrical sharpness with sheer stab-your-heart beauty so deftly was Fiona Apple.
Pure Comedy is not a perfect piece of work. In his attempt to depict the human condition, in all its complexities, Tillman necessarily oversimplifies just about everything. No matter what your belief system, there are at least a few lines that will make you want to bang your head on a wall. (For me, the worst line is still that Taylor Swift one, which is gross and attention-grabby even though I know what Tillman was going for.) It’s too long; no album needs to be this long. I get the sense that the album might’ve benefitted if someone had been around to tell Tillman “no” every once in a while. And yet Pure Comedy is still an absolutely stunning piece of work, a rare example of an artist using all the goodwill he’s built up and just absolutely going for it, putting everything into a grand and overwhelming statement. He’s really done something here. And now he can say, or act, however the hell he wants.
Pure Comedy is out 4/7 on Sub Pop.