Arts & CultureMusic

Triple Take: Father John Misty’s ‘Pure Comedy’ is far from funny



Some albums are complex or polarizing enough to merit assigning two reviewers to fairly capture the essence of the work of art. Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy” is an album brimming with enough symbolism, dread and social commentary that the Emerald assigned three reviewers to decipher what Father John Misty is saying. 

Also, listen to the Emerald’s podcast review of “Pure Comedy” where reviewers Craig Wright, Dana Alston, Sararosa Davies and Emerson Malone argue their album theories in person in a (mostly) civil conversation. 

Craig’s take:

In 2015, Father John Misty, aka the LSD-infused mad-prophet alter ego of Josh Tillman, released his second album, “I Love You, Honeybear.” It is an album about the grand concept of love in all of its triumphs and its pitfalls: the magic of meeting a soulmate during a routine trip to the grocery store, the anxiety of trying to be the “Ideal Husband” and all of the “mascara, blood, ash and cum” stained sheets that counterbalance the purity of love.

“Honeybear” is an album about Tillman, love and self searching; “Pure Comedy” is about us. It’s a sardonic look at society and the current political system, our insatiable addiction to entertainment and how the celebrity deification process has become the leading religion of our time.

From its onset, “Comedy” has a defined narrative arc that stretches across a lifespan from a torturous birth to a tolerable present where everything might actually be OK — if you learn to accept the looming apocalypse. Tillman examines our fatal flaws developed along the journey in an irresistibly grandiose sonic setting. In the process of analyzing the state of our “godless rock that refuses to die,” Tillman walks a tightrope between a hopeless takedown and a grateful acceptance of the miracle of life — love, politics, Twitter and war included.

This is an old-school album that can’t be shuffle or skipped through. Each song is a cog-like motor powering each chapter of Tillman’s largest-scale production yet.

“Pure Comedy” begins with an overview of life in the title track that quickly devolves from innocent babies being born, into man’s lust for warfare and the creation of false idols in the form of celebrities and politicians. But he does not just critique the people in power; rather, he’s criticizing the people who allow an entertainment-fueled world to corrupt their country — namely, us.

“Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them? / What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable? / These mammals are hellbent on fashioning new gods so they can go on being godless animals,” Tillman sings over desolate minor piano chords in “Pure Comedy.”

After building to a climactic instrumental passage with a roaring saxophone solo and a full horn line, the track recedes with a haunting conclusion. All hope seems to be lost with Misty’s realization: “I hate to say it, but each other is all we’ve got.” It’s a grim view to dread relying on other humans, but in our world of splintered ideologies, his fear of collaboration with opposing perspectives is understandable.

Much of the album focuses on religion and how people will blindly follow the greatest source of entertainment simply because it is omnipresent. This is where the persona of Father John Misty meets our thirst for entertaining celebrities. By being a smartass internet troll since his last album release, Misty has remained perpetually relevant. There are few traces of Josh Tillman on this album; instead, he is going all-in with Father John Misty because of the public’s favorable reaction.

In “Leaving LA,” a sprawling 13-minute song with no chorus, Tillman echoes John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” statement. He also argues that religion is being pushed away in favor of celebrities, but no one really seems to care that much anymore. This boisterous alter ego is no different than how Donald Trump blundered his way to the White House, and how Kanye West became who he is today. People latch onto outrageous personalities with a death grip until they are ingrained in our culture. It’s the fatal flaw of the concept of celebrity, but we never fail to fall for it.

“Why is it I’m so distraught / If what I’m selling is getting bought / At some point you just can’t control what people use your fake name for,” Tillman says in “Leaving LA.”

Father John Misty is in dangerous territory, and he knows it. Seemingly every feature about him feels like the interviewer was attempting to trap him with a difficult situation in hopes of a slip-up that can go viral. Yet the persona unfailingly transcends the situation with insight that is often truly outrageous, often disarmingly insightful.

But he is a few steps ahead of interviewers looking to out him. He has basically controlled the reaction to this album with a few key clickbait lyrics that nearly every publication has fallen prey to. By singing about race, religion and sexually objectifying a virtual form of the chaste goddess Taylor Swift, he has played off of our biggest insecurities as a society and commanded the headlines that then go viral. The album sells itself (err, streams itself?).

But why should Tillman stop his ridiculous persona if it’s working? He is no longer “Bored in the USA”; he’s now content to witness the insanity of life and occasionally stoke the flames himself. As he sings on “A Bigger Paper Bag,” “I’ve got the world by the balls / Am I supposed to behave?”

No. For our sake, please don’t. 

Follow Craig on Twitter for a shocking lack of entertainment: @wgwcraig

Dana’s take: 

In 2015, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman was asked to define “authentic.” His reply matter-of-fact. “Most people’s idea of authenticity is pork pie hats, and banjos and whatever else,” he stated, sitting next to his wife Emma and avoiding all eye contact. “[But] if you can empathize with people and make them feel like what you’re talking about is somehow reflective of their own experiences, then you’ve won their vanity, and thus achieved authenticity.”

Tillman’s didn’t expand, but admitted to not knowing what a pork pie hat is moments later. Despite supplying a thorough definition of authenticity on his own terms, he framed his explanation using an example he didn’t completely understand.

Such is the essence of Father John Misty, Tillman’s musical alter-ego. Created after releasing 8 albums under “J. Tillman” to middling success, Misty is the musician’s answer to the contradictions of the world. He is vain, self-deprecating, pretentious and brilliant, a Great American Novelist wrapped in hipster cloth.

His newfound personality brought Tillman considerable cred in the indie world. It helps that he spent four years as a member of Fleet Foxes. But while that band sparked a minor folk revival with zero irony, Tillman seemingly looks back on those days while rolling his eyes. Pork pie hats and banjos, indeed.

“Pure Comedy,” the singer-songwriter’s latest effort and his third under the Misty moniker, is far too scatterbrained to be focused on any one thing. But over the album’s 75 minutes, the struggle to be authentic takes center stage on more than one occasion. “A few things the songwriter needs / Arrows of love, a mask of tragedy,” he sings on the 10-verse “Leaving LA.” Later Tillman admits to his desire for critical acclaim, even as his own persona rejects it. All the while, strings and a gently-strummed guitar swell underneath his voice.

This isn’t the first time he’s displayed self awareness. His highly acclaimed sophomore album “I Love You, Honeybear” debated the pitfalls of romance while confessing his love to his wife. But “Honeybear” worked well partly because of its relatable subject matter. Everyone has been in love. Very few have become successful entertainers.

It’s seems understandably miraculous that Tillman manages to keep things interesting. And he does so almost solely through lyrics. Songs like “Ballad of the Dying Man” and the title track don’t have instantly recognizable choruses. Instead, they rely on Tillman’s sardonic wit and delivery of flowing, one-off melodies. Contextually, the album has more in common with his deep cuts than his singles; playing it at a party will empty the room.

But what “Pure Comedy” loses in lush instrumentation, it gains in artistic ambition. No stone is left ironically unturned. On the lead single “Total Entertainment Forever,” Tillman imagines a world ruled by pleasures, including a Taylor Swift-led sexual fantasy courtesy of the Oculus Rift. It’s half a sarcastic red herring and half a meditation on where our society is headed. Later, “Birdie” shudders at “a world written in lines of code” while holding out hope for the death of gender roles.

Tillman may come across as a fear-mongering prophet, but hope and sweetness are both driving themes of “Pure Comedy.” The album’s closer, “In Twenty Years or So,” ends with the repeated lyric, “There’s nothing to fear.” It’s the most authentic moment on the album, not only because it suggests a reason to smile, but because it’s one of a handful of times Tillman willingly steps outside of his persona. Once “Father John Misty” melts away, the man behind the name turns out to be as confused, insecure and sappy as the rest of us.

“Pure Comedy” isn’t the most immediately album appealing in the Misty discography. But it could deservedly be remembered as the artist’s best work. Few songwriters have managed to capture the contradictions of entertainment or the confusion of the modern world so wryly. He’s done it before, but on past releases it’s been easy to wonder if Tillman was kidding. This time, he’s not. But he knows that, even in the smallest moments, “each other’s all we got.”

Follow Dana on Twitter for total entertainment: @alstondalston

Sararosa’s take:

“Pure Comedy” is Father John Misty at his Father John Misty-est. It’s a sprawling and complicated album — 75 minutes total — that critiques modern-day humanity. Former drummer for the indie-folk band Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty is great at being cynical. The man behind the pseudonym, Josh Tillman, seems comfortable in that character. But sometimes Tillman’s attempt at pretentiousness is almost too real; he is so good at being a pretentious jerk that he straddles the line between drunken asshole and actual prophet. 

This raises the question: Do we really need “another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously” critiquing the current system in this way? As annoying as it is to write this — yes, we do.

In an industry that is finally starting to address its own internal sexism and racism, celebrating countless white dudes who critique these practices should feel like a step backwards. But there’s a tinge of sarcasm to everything Tillman does that makes “Pure Comedy” a critique of the system that created “white dude apologists” and “false feminists” in the first place. By calling out his own self-pitying tendencies in such a way, Tillman is ironically painting a larger picture about our world.

In the song “Birdie,” Tillman sings, “Soon we will live in a global culture devoid of gender or race.” This lyric could come across as a misguided attempt at addressing racism, but when put in the context of the rest of the album’s sarcasm, it seems like Tillman is making fun of people who say things like that. Like Ilana Wexler says in Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” “Statistically we are headed toward an age where everybody is going to be, like, caramel and queer.” Does Wexler actually believe what she says? It’s naive but misguided logic. Tillman and Wexler know that. They write lines and lyrics such as these ones to bring attention to this irony.

“Pure Comedy” is intoxicating because we know that we are all guilty of racist and sexist subconscious behavior, but often we don’t want to admit it. The album is infuriating and comforting at the same time because Tillman addresses this aspect of our society in such a joking manner. He’s talking about himself, but he’s also talking about everyone around him.

The album is full of moments of social commentary like the ones in “Birdie.” Songs switch between sincere observations and jokes about modern times. For example, “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” in “Total Entertainment Forever” is an accurate piece of commentary about how we view entertainment. Sometimes, like Tillman’s social media presence, it’s unclear where the joking ends and the sincerity starts, or whether the joke is even an astute observation in the first place.

In “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” Tillman sings about a post-social upheaval world and how “we all get a bit restless / with no one advertising to us constantly.” This critique is valid, if not sad. Tillman’s morbid lyrics pair perfectly with the trickling piano and his straining voice. Though the lyrics have a thick layer of sarcasm, Tillman sings with conviction. His humor is dark, but his singing makes it sound like he (mostly) means what he says.

“Pure Comedy” is Father John Misty at his peak. Even with his poignant commentary on our divisive times and an undeniable sense of dark wit, Tillman still likes to be controversial and that makes people tick. Maybe Father John Misty is just another pretentious white guy in 2017, but he plays the arrogant character so well in “Pure Comedy” that it’s hard to argue against the humor of it all.

Follow Sararosa on Twitter for thoughts about Minneapolis and hummus: @srosiedosie


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Craig Wright

Craig Wright

Craig is the senior arts and culture editor for the Emerald. He is from West Linn, Oregon, and is a senior majoring in journalism at the UO. He has made Nick Frost laugh and has been deemed to be "f---ed up in the head" by legendary thrash-metal band Slayer.