On the fourth track of his debut album, “Fear Fun,” Father John Misty croons, “I’ll never leave the canyon, ’cause I’m surrounded on all sides / By people writing novels and living on amusement rides.”
With his latest release “Pure Comedy,” he is still languishing in the canyon, but he has gotten some perspective on what is really at stake in the insidious entertainment complex of popular culture.
Father John Misty, the alias of former Fleet Foxes percussionist and solo artist Josh Tillman, has released three albums over the course of five years. During this half-decade, he has become one of the most divisive figures in indie music. He is reviled by those who see him as a pedantic and ironic “hipster,” and he is lauded by those who consider him a self-aware postmodern prophet.
With his first two releases, he wore two notable hats: the sardonic wit and the honest romantic. On record, he kept his sarcasm and tenderness separate. “Fear Fun”’s moments of romantic self-expression (namely “O I Long To Feel Your Arms Around Me” and “Everyman Needs A Companion)” are masquerades for cynical commentary on popular attitudes towards love. His 2015 sophomore album, “I Love You Honeybear,” is uncompromisingly concerned with how Tillman can show “true affection.” In the downtime after the second album, he engaged in several on- and off-stage shenanigans: covering Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” in the style of the Velvet Underground on YouTube, stealing crystals from a boutique shop in Los Angeles, and ranting at a New Jersey music festival for 15 minutes about the Republican Convention.
All of this served as build-up, in the minds of Father John Misty fans, for a third album that would be as asinine as an artist — who appears shirtless and drowning in the music video for Lana Del Rey’s “Freak” and smokes all-natural American Spirit cigarettes religiously — could possibly produce. But when “Pure Comedy” was released on April 7, fans received a very different form of “entertainment”: a fatalistic diatribe against hypocritical figureheads. In reality, Tillman proclaims, the comedy of human error and bad luck stops for no one.
It seems that this was the balladeer’s goal all along. According to a lengthy essay sent to his fan club that served as an announcement for the album, Tillman reveals that the album is a story about a “species” whose “brains prove to be remarkably good at inventing meaning where there is none.” The opening title track reveals further that this species is man, as Tillman sings, “The comedy of man starts like this / Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips.” From there, he lays out all manner of ways in which humans provoke themselves to suffering: by letting tyrants rule them, submitting to an organized religion, and rejecting the love of another person. The only recourse in life is the sheer acknowledgement that it is as vacuous as we think it may be: “And what’s to regret / For a speck on a speck on a speck / Made more ridiculous the more serious he gets?”
The waxy vinyl sound of “Birdie,” the soaring string section of “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” and “In Twenty Years Or So,” and the melodramatic piano of “When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay” all combine to form a “listenable” album. Entertainment, strictly speaking, it is not; every song is chock-full of attacks on politicians and religious fanatics, and the album is punctuated by two songs exceeding ten minutes each. A front-to-back listen leaves the listener winded, not only because it is a 75-minute album, but because it forces the listener to confront their environment. It even forces the listener to confront the device they are using to listen to Father John Misty’s latest release, while they are busy “bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift.”
“Pure Comedy” is in no way a retread of previous albums, though the thread of ennui that runs throughout was first laid by Tillman on “Bored In The USA.” It is a project removed from the Father John Misty character almost entirely — there is no facade of irony which distances the singer from his audience.
“Total Entertainment Forever” proclaims that there are “No gods to rule us / No drugs to soothe us / No myths to prove stuff / No love to confuse us” — and that this is the consummation of all entertainment. While the Father John Misty moniker playfully poked fun at the absurdity of consumer culture on previous albums, this record is Tillman’s most unfiltered and sincere response to cultural vapidity yet. The album’s grandiose approach does not produce an alienating effect, placing Tillman high above the masses. On the contrary, it is profoundly human and relational. When Tillman sings about “dancing ’round the flames” of an America in upheaval like “a king on cocaine,” he is giving the most visceral account he can of his experience as a frustrated citizen. In one of the more subdued moments on the album, “The Memo,” he lays bare the daily routine of any well-groomed citizen: “Oh, caffeine in the morning, alcohol at night / Cameras to record you and mirrors to recognize.”
There is no pretense to “Pure Comedy” — it cannot present itself pretentiously. What is so inane and yet so important as self-reflection? Tillman has broken from the persona he imposed upon his earlier music, and with both hands free from ego-stroking, he holds the mirror up to his audience. Alongside this judgment, however, he offers a final consolation in “In Twenty Years Or So” that — with the understanding that human existence is simple, ordinary, and terrible — the listener and Tillman himself can transcend life’s absurdity: “There’s nothing to fear.”