Album Review: Father John Misty, Pure Comedy

State of the world address from Joshua Tillman

Joshua Tillman is an infuriating enigma, wrapped up in a frustrating conundrum. Part lounge singer, part new age prophet, with a side-order of 21st century poet, it’s hard to figure out if he’s a po-faced preacher or arch ironist. Is he the natural heir to Dylan, Newman and Cohen, or a petulant faker, in thrall to nothing but his ego and our fame-crazed society? The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

After releasing eight albums of “sad bastard music” as J. Tillman, 2012 saw the onetime Fleet Foxes sticksmith reinvent himself as the ruminative pastor that is Father John Misty. It’s fair to say that three albums later, he hasn’t looked back, with 2015’s I Love You Honeybear hitting most end-of-year best-ofs, although he may have just surpassed it with this sometimes harrowing, occasionally caustic, frequently brilliant state of the planet address.

Tillman has written a “fuck ton” of liner notes about the album’s gestation and the political and social backdrop in which it finds itself being unleashed. This 1,900-word missive is not the work of a fraud but someone who clearly thinks deeply about the human condition and makes for thought-provoking reading, both for those espousing “violent white nationalism” and “spineless liberal rhetoric.” The intense apocalyptic prediction of ‘Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution’ is the perfect calling card for Tillman’s tired troubadour to reflect on “this godless rock that refuses to die”.

As the album title-track suggests, Tillman sees the pure comedy of the human condition, providing you buy into the belief that comedy equals tragedy plus time and is repeated ad nauseam throughout history. Tillman coins killer lines faster than Noel Gallagher spins soundbites, whether he’s “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” (‘Total Entertainment Forever’) or delivering the perfect musical put-down, “I’m going to tell everybody they sing like angels with white teeth/ But just between you and me, they’re just like the ones before with their standards lower” (‘The Memo’). In fact, you could spend a whole review marvelling at the wonder of lines like “Somebody’s gotta go and kill something while I look after the kids/ I’d do it myself but are you gonna give this thing its milk?” (‘Pure Comedy’).

The music is gentle, ‘70s-inspired singer-songwriter fare, often comprised of just Tillman’s voice and piano or acoustic guitar, which serves as the perfect antidote to tracks like the 13 minutes of brilliance that is ‘Leaving LA’, or the seething anger of ‘When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay’, a powerful indictment of religion as an excuse for all manner of ills.

With 13 songs over 75 minutes, Pure Comedy can feel a little like going 10 rounds with a prize fighter, but it’s a brawl well worth the bruises.

 

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