Since adopting the moniker Father John Misty in 2012, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman has released a trio of fantastic albums. Released April 7, Tillman’s latest album “Pure Comedy” features his characteristic instrumentation, vocal timbre and misanthropic worldview. However, it represents a departure from his previous work in its ambition — presenting a vast, scathing commentary on human nature and contemporary society.
Tillman accompanied the album’s release announcement with an 1,800-word essay describing the meaning and symbolism embedded in “Pure Comedy.” In the wake of a set-ending rant at last summer’s XPoNential Music Festival about how “stupidity just f–king runs the world” and how he “always thought that it was going to look way more sophisticated than this when evil happened,” Misty appears — at first glance — to be condemning the same entertainment culture that gives him a platform. Conversely, collaborations with Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Kid Cudi seem to run counter to his dismissal of the industry.
The essay, beginning with an excerpt from Ecclesiastes, explains how humans “prove to be remarkably good at inventing meaning where there is none” and purveying “increasingly bizarre and sophisticated ironies … designed to help cope with the species’ loathsome vulnerability and to try and reconcile how disproportionate their imagination is to the monotony of their existence.” Unfortunately, the piece exuded a self-righteous, holier-than-thou sentiment that misrepresents the basis for Tillman’s remarkable project.
The sprawling album begins with the title track, a six-minute examination of the irony of human experience, targeting everything from basic survival and religion to gender roles and capitalism. The first single from the album, “Pure Comedy,” was released in the wake of President Donald Trump’s January inauguration. The music video features imagery of Trump and former President Barack Obama interspersed with clips from popular culture, reflecting the political and social commentary that is the premise of the song.
The song sets a zealous course for the album, one that is absent the humility that has characterized the lyrical approach of Tillman’s past two releases. The song gradually gains intensity as it poetically meanders through its first four minutes before bursting into a full-throated ballad with brass accompaniment.
“Total Entertainment Forever” is the album’s most dynamic track. Unafraid of criticism and anything but a people-pleaser, Tillman begins the song with the line “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift,” referring to the sexualization and increasingly pornographic nature of entertainment and technological advancement.
The track embodies the album’s central critique of humanity or, as Tillman puts it, “a race of demented monkeys / From a cave to a city to a permanent party.” This critique is evident in the track’s concluding imagery: a scene in which future historians discover smiling skeletons staring into their devices, leading them to conclude our present was a wonderful time.
Were the album to be distilled into one song, “Leaving LA” would be the best candidate, offering an expansive, 13-minute romp through Tillman’s conflicted psyche.
Over the course of 10 verses interspersed with gorgeous orchestral interludes, Tillman reveals his desire to escape the “LA phonies and their bulls–t bands,” before wandering into a comparison of Buddha and a relation of the time he choked on a watermelon candy at JCPenney. By demonstrating the way his past has tumbled into his reality, Tillman makes his escape from the nightmarish city in which “only the armed or the funny make it out alive” all the more pressing.
“A Bigger Paper Bag” calls to mind the style of Elliot Smith as Tillman sings over a dreamy acoustic arrangement. Questioning the unreality of his success, Tillman is the espousal of a rebellious spirit as he sings, “I’ve got the world by the balls / Am I supposed to behave?” before transforming into an exposition of his internal anxiety: “It’s easy to assume that you’ve built some rapport / With someone who only likes you for what you like yourself for.”His struggle with fame, narcissism and the self-reinforcing nature of the two, that, according to Tillman, has resulted in depression, lends a darker tinge to the most album’s most personal moment.
“Pure Comedy” is undoubtedly Tillman’s most cerebral, thought-provoking release to date. Though the latter half of the album is not as momentous as the former, the first half of “Pure Comedy” is more stunning than some artists’ entire discographies. Throughout, Tillman remains unafraid to share the fruit of his bizarre intellect with the world, but it is unclear what he sees as a solution to the ills he exposes. His misanthropic, cynical perspective is unescapable even in some of the album’s lighter moments, making one wonder whether his true desire is to inspire a reformation of humanity or solely to flatter his intellect.