Entertainment Squared

If I had to describe Josh Tillman in one word, it would be: "unavoidable."

The ubiquity of Tillman as Father John Misty is a relatively recent development in what many people don't realize is a long, twisting career. Before adopting the Misty moniker in 2012, Tillman played drums for the folk rock group Fleet Foxes for four years and released eight-or-so albums under his Christian name, the first one around 2003. Nowadays it's difficult to imagine a musical-social scene without Tillman's presence, but nobody really knew who he was until about five years ago.

Despite this, he's had a lot of time to ponder what a Great American Album would look like, and if it were any other artist releasing an album like Pure Comedy, I would assume that's what they were going for. Though, Tillman has always had a penchant for making grand philosophical statements, and for loosely shrouding his political dissertations in the self-aware guise of the folk rock hit.

I feel confident in stating that you should completely ignore this album if you found Tillman's previous work insufferable, because there's less subtlety and more self-congratulatory posturing than ever. If there's something in here for you, you'll leave in disgust before you ever uncover it. Tillman paints himself as complicit in the brutal cult of celebrity, but constantly assumes wise and impartial characters to distance himself to the culture he's criticizing throughout the album. It would be easier to hate him for it if he didn't already hate himself so much.

What's more frustrating about Pure Comedy is how often the music is actually great. The production on tracks like "Two Wildly Different Perspectives" and "The Memo" is braver and more inventive than anything Tillman has done (including "True Affection" from 2015's I Love You Honeybear, a sort of preamble to the electronic details Tillman now seems to dole out more liberally). It's clear from the list of composers he called in to help, which includes Nico Muhly, that he was going for something truly outside the box.

And in most ways, Pure Comedy is absolutely successful. Tillman's natural skill with incisive phrasings comes through strongest when he's weaving creative conceptualizations of human institutions - ones we're so used to that we rarely think about how absurd they are. On religion/capitalism/pharmaceutical science, Tillman sings:

"Their languages just serve to confuse them
Their confusion somehow makes them more sure
They build fortunes poisoning their offspring
And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure."

The language falls a little flat when Tillman leans too heavily on the postmodern entertainment philosophy he's clearly been studying: Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves To Death" and David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" come to mind. I like "Jest" as much as anyone, but this stuff isn't exactly news in the literary world, and Tillman acts like he's the first one to finally figure it out. However, the longer I spend with Pure Comedy, the more sympathetic I am to whatever horrific experience of celebrity Tillman is trying to explain.

The album's self-titled first track starts at the very beginning: birth. Tillman's description of (among other things) the flawed design of childbirth, early hunter-gatherer society, menstruation and religion actually comes across as intelligent, poignant, and sympathetic - a tone he's struggled to reach on his previous albums. Desperation is not far below the surface. The varied vocal performance throughout the record begins in this first track with some pretty convincing screams.

I won't go deep into the track listing, primarily because the album is an hour and 15 minutes long, but also because I feel differently about the songs every time I hear them. "Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution" is a great example: it took me five or six listens to begin to understand what Tillman was trying to do, and how the "When I Was Done Dying" lyrical rhythm and "A Day In The Life" mayhem during the bridge were effective parts of an otherwise soft and introspective song basically about modern lifestyles.

"When The God Of Love Returns There'll Be Hell To Pay" and "Two Wildly Different Perspectives" were other favorites of mine, even if the latter struggles a little to make a point beyond "everyone's wrong and we're all the same."

What seems to me the central moment of the album occurs during the ninth verse of the 13-minute folk-rock epic "Leaving LA:"

"My first memory of music's from
The time at JCPenney with my mom
The watermelon candy I was choking on
Barbara screaming, ‘Someone help my son!'
I relive it most times the radio's on
That ‘tell me lies, sweet little white lies' song
That's when I first saw the comedy won't stop for
Even little boys dying in department stores."

Even if he wanted to, Tillman couldn't give up entertainment for stuffy philosophy, and despite what he says about the music industry, it seems clear he has no intention of stopping. Maybe with Pure Comedy he's finally found his stride combining the two. The commentary on the album might be the closest thing to the snappy and eloquent diatribes he laces his interview responses with, for better and for worse.

I'm sick to death of the meta-analyses of music journalists on the public impact of Father John Misty on the world and vice versa and so on, ad infinitum. All I know is that Pure Comedy is nothing like any other album I've heard, and that even his detractors could perhaps find something to love about it. I don't know if I'll always care about what Tillman has to say, but I'll give my blessing to anyone who spends their life making something out of nothing.