Review Summary: Father John Misty delivers a sermon that feels sadly timely, and a bit indulgent, but is that actually such a bad thing?
2017 has been a really odd year thus far.
The popular consensus is that 2016 was an unequivocal garbage fire for any number of reasons, be they the seemingly endless string of beloved icons and celebrities dying, the incredibly tumultuous state of politics in the US and the UK, and the slow progression of everyone feeling more disassociated with just about the entire world... or maybe that last one was me projecting a little bit. Regardless, this album and I have a bit of a story that I feel lends me a bit more of a unique perspective on it, so indulge me briefly if you'd be so kind.
It was when I first saw a video criticizing Josh Tillman's (aka Father John Misty) 'Pure Comedy' on youtube, where it first drew my interest. The video was of a critic who I respect dearly tearing the album apart for being 'Emotional Overkill' saying that it was far too self-indulgent when it comes to it's own nihilistic viewpoint on the current state of the world. While I respect this point and critique, and even agree that it is a very valid criticism to make of the work in question, I think this is why I slowly grew to love the album more and more. Tillman's last album, 'I Love You Honeybear' was a bit on the lighter side, but only just slightly. The thesis of the album felt more like 'The world is *** and people are *** but at least I have you' (the 'you' in question being the titular 'Honeybear', Tillman's wife) whereas Pure Comedy is more 'The World is *** and people are ***... what now?'
Listening to Honeybear after a healthy amount of listening to Pure Comedy for months was a fascinating journey. And combined with examining another effort partially from Tillman, the album 'Helplessness Blues' by Fleet Foxes, it almost feels like I witnessed Josh Tillman slowly coming to terms with an emotional and existential crisis concerning himself as an artist and as a person, as well as just about everything else someone can contemplate when in such a mindset. There's a decline here I find fascinating. Helplessness Blues wasn't exactly written by Tillman, he was the drummer for Feet Foxes (disclaimer: I'm not sure if he was involved in the writing of any of the music whatsoever, I couldn't find much, I'm a bit new to this whole music nerd thing and my analysis I'm going for here is less technical, so if that isn't your thing or you think I'm talking out my ass here, then feel free to call me out. I suppose everyone has to have their 'first review' and this is mine) but I find it relevant because of how much Helplessness Blues focuses on the beauty of life. I found it oddly uplifting and kind of admirable at just how enamored Fleet Foxes seemed to be with life in general on that LP, lyrics and songs that describe finding wonder and awe in something as small as an apple. Then the sharp decline into Honeybear where Tillman shows NO trace of the ethos from Helplessness Blues at all, but still viewing the world with a sense of detachment and humor, but still finding that love could save himself from all of awful *** in life.
And in Pure Comedy? 'Each other is all we've got' is just about the most positive thing Josh has to say on here. And it's not exactly in a positive light that he casts this statement.
Tracks like 'Smoochie' and 'Birdie' definitely show that he has a couple of things to say about beauty and wonder, but mainly on how small and fleeting they are. All traces of ironic and even often silly humor found on his previous album are gone. Even in the most upbeat sounding song, the bitingly sarcastic 'Total Entertainment Forever' is satire that shows Tillman's slightly post-modernist take on the not to distant future, a take that conjures up thoughts of Mike Judge's film 'Idiocracy', where humanity is it's own undoing not through destruction or misuse of power, but through convenience and sterilization that lets the lowest common denominator stumble on through life with little consequence.
With those odd few out of the way, 'Pure Comedy' is a near film-length album full of self-reflective and pessimistic ballads about the world, society, politics, and people in general. It's easy to see where Tillman got the inspiration, get on your phone and read the news, hop onto twitter, watch a news-oriented or politically charged youtube video, it's all there. And honestly? Yes, the self-indulgence is here, but in a way I admire it. The best way to dodge the label of 'pretentious' is by sticking it onto yourself, and Tillman does plenty of that (lyrics such as: 'this new *** really makes me wanna die' and 'just what we need, another white guy in 2017') because he's well-aware of what he's making. In fact, tonally speaking and message-wise it is reminiscent of another project this year, Roger Waters' 'Is This the Life We Really Want?'. But on that LP, I feel like Waters lacked the self-awareness and wit that make Tillman's material stick more. Songs like 'Two Wildly Different Perspectives' work so well because Tillman smartly stays away from the specific politics of two different sides and more so critiques the methods employed by those who hold these beliefs. He even comments on his own uselessness and futility in ballads like 'Leaving L.A.' which paint a picture of a man who cannot help but pass harsh judgement on practically anyone or anything he sees, including himself. (Also brought up to the forefront in songs like Ballad of the Dying Man)
The sound of this album is perhaps the most indicative of what the end-goal is here. It's spacey, slow, melodic, and sometimes grows from being intimate and quiet into a huge declaration of misery and self-defeat. A by-product of enduring a lot of bull*** from the time we live in currently no doubt, but focused far more on humanity as a whole. There's no advice here on how to improve. Tillman simply paints a giant tapestry of flaws of sadness by weaving together darkly comic and inventive lyricism. On the song 'The Memo' we hear him talk about stealing bedsheets from amputees and mounting people on billboards to show the entire world what a farce it is. 'Things it Would've Been Helpful to Know before the Revolution' sketches together images of a man walking around the post-apocalypse and trying desperately to cling to ludicrous silver-linings so he can cope with the destruction that he himself helped cause. And it is all so, so, SO brutal and unrelenting, I have to compliment the man. Could it be perceived as overkill? Absolutely. But committing to something like this takes a considerable amount of effort, and committing without sounding like an emo teenage outsider writing in his diary about how 'no one understands him' takes an even greater amount. The fact that this is all sonically coated in some beautiful melodies and grand instrumentation feels more like a bonus.
In a way, I feel this album is a great method of coping. Is it unrelenting? Oh yes. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. In fact, the one real issue I have is that it may be a bit one-note, but even as I say that, I know it's because he's explored his topic in such a multi-faceted way, so I can deal with it. After a year full of misery where humanity feels like it's getting closer and closer to ruining itself every single day, Pure Comedy is cathartic. There are no politics here beyond the fact that most political parties probably suck because human beings created them, so they of course must be flawed. There's no baggage you have to worry about here. I can submit to the indictment because it's easier and easier to believe with each passing moment. And if you don't know if you'll enjoy it, that's your gage. How much can you submit to it? Not to mention tracking Josh's career and the little niche this has carved for itself in his oeuvre, to me, is fascinating, so that's something else to contemplate when listening to it. I personally found it perfect for those sleepless nights where you lie awake and simply let your mind wander.
It's been an odd year. And this is an odd album to be sure. So if you ask me, it's a match made in heaven.