Pure Comedy, the third LP from Josh Tillman under his Father John Misty moniker, was my most anticipated release of the spring. His last album, 2015’s I Love You Honeybear, was gorgeously produced, fun, honest, smart, catchy, humorous, deeply self-effacing, reflective, perfectly sequenced and one of the few albums I’ve heard centering on the theme of mutual love and affection that actually sounded fresh and original. While the majority of the album was about his meeting and marrying a woman that saved him from his own self-destructive tendencies, two songs in particular stuck out – “Bored in the USA” and “Holy Shit“. These tracks were Tillman turning away from his wife to take a devastating look at modern society, consumerism and late stage market capitalism, and they positioned Father John to become the decade’s standard bearer of those ever-recurring themes. Thus the stage was set for Pure Comedy.
Going in, most critics would have told you this was poised to be the most political album of the post Trump era, but it’s still hard to understate the magnitude of the scope Tillman sets within his sites on Pure Comedy. The record begins with a fundamental flaw of human existence – the undeveloped nature of newborn babies relative to other animals, and the reliance on protection and guidance from parents and others – and ends with Tillman referring to himself as a “speck on a speck on a speck” “clinging to a rock that is hurtling through space”. This album is the definition of wide scope. Forget Arcade Fire or Kendrick – Pure Comedy sounds like an honest attempt to write an album on the history of humanity, from distant past to distant, post-apocalyptic future, with the protagonist’s own melodrama spliced in the middle to represent one individual existing today.
Every song on Pure Comedy has a central concept or subject and rarely deviates, no matter if the track is three minutes or thirteen. The opener and title track addresses the irony of humanity’s doomed existence, culminating with the record’s underlying thesis – “The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive / But the only thing that they request is something to numb the pain with / Until there’s nothing human left.” Second sequenced “Total Entertainment Forever” is my pick for the album’s best track, and perhaps my favorite song of the year thus far. In three minutes, FJM envisions a fairly believable world in which virtual reality becomes so entertaining and pleasurable that humanity succumbs to its embrace and society dies off completely, for future alien historians to discover and declare “this must have been a wonderful place.” The song is the highest energy track on the record, has wonderful horn sections, thrilling, rocketing choruses, and one of the best opening lines I’ve ever heard – “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” (in reference to the opening line on Kanye’s “Famous“).
Third-sequenced “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” is a plodding ballad that takes place in a post-government future (“It got too hot and so we overthrew the system”) where humans have to give up their previous endeavors (“The nightlife and the protests are pretty scarce”) and revert to relying on hunting and gathering. Standout “Ballad of the Dying Man” rounds out the album’s excellent opening chapter, a track about a dying man who wonders who will critique all “the homophobes, hipsters and 1%” after he’s gone. The jaunty piano, crisp drumming and beautiful harmonies also combine to make it one of the most well-arranged and spacious tracks instrumentally.
“Birdie” comes fifth, slowing the album down considerably and burning very slowly. Thematically, it’s one of the more abstract songs on the record, sarcastically indulging in idealistic escapism to a future society where everything went right for progressives – “Soon we’ll live in a global cultural devoid of gender or race”. While the track does explode in a cathartic climax, I can’t help but feel that it disrupts the pacing the first four tracks establish.
And if it didn’t, the 13-minute, “10 verse chorus-less diatribe” (as FJM describes it within the song itself) “Leaving LA” brings the record to a screeching halt. This track is truly free-form Tillman, erring his grievances not just on LA, but on the music industry, the entertainment industry, religion, family and fame. This is undoubtedly the most polarizing song on the album, and the artist is fully aware, predicting the reaction from his fan-base of “manic virginal lust and college dudes”: “I used to like this guy / This new shit really makes me wanna die”. Aside from Tillman’s voice, an acoustic guitar and an admittedly beautiful string section, the song doesn’t have much in the way of development or progression, and unless you’re eating up each and every line, or are entrenched in a truly deep listening session of the album, my official verdict is that the track takes more away form the album’s focus than it does to fill out its story. It’s the most personal song here, but I think the details of Tillman’s personal life shine through enough in other places to render being beat over the head with his psyche for 13 minutes unnecessary.
Like on the followup “A Bigger Paper Bag”, which returns to Father John Misty’s oft-discussed penchant for drowning himself in drugs and alcohol despite his knowing better. “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” is back to large scale, conceptual songs, imagining what a god that created humanity would think of where we are now. Led by piano and featuring ghostly choirs, I could have sworn the melody was from Disney’s Hercules, a testament to Tillman’s ability to outfit a thematic song with a proper tune. “Smoochie” comes next, and despite some really sweet, country-tinged slide guitars, the song is a love ballad a la Honeybear but isn’t quite as pretty or as lyrically memorable. I really don’t care for the titular sentiment, although I like the creepy vocal effect, which serves as the “personal demons” and “shadows inside me” that Tillman describes as being availed by his wife.
“Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is exactly the song you thought would be on the record, featuring the tired “one says this but the other says that, can’t we all just get along?” sentiment that’s so popular nowadays. It’s fine, but not one of the more original or poignant points on the record. “The Memo” on the other-hand, is one of the more original songs here, a conceptual track about the lack of authenticity within the focus-group tested world of big entertainment masking itself as art, taking shots at mainstream pop (“I’m gonna take five young dudes from white families / I’m gonna mount ’em on a billboard”), streaming services (“Do you usually listen to music like this? Can we recommend some similar artists?”) and social media (“Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online”). The robotic, broken down bridge through which an Alexa-like voice crafts the perfect indie playlist gives way to a pleasant final verse much the way existential dread inevitably gives way to complacency and pleasure.
The penultimate “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” is a slow, 10 minute ballad that reminds me quite a bit of “Leaving LA”, further making me question the latter’s inclusion. Tillman is predictably pondering fatality, and the song’s extended outro of strings and fuzz make for a symbolic death and solid ending to the story of the record. “In Twenty Years or So” thus arrives as an after the credits, fourth wall-breaking conclusion on which Tillman admits to the fatal flaw in his whole argument – what does any of this observing, reflecting, pondering and complaining matter when taken in the context of our own insignificance relative to the vastness of time and space? “But I look at you / As our second drinks arrive / The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place” and it’s a miracle to be alive” Tillman concludes, and after 70 minutes of being the smartest guy in the room, he proves once again to get the final laugh in the face of his own vanity.
The production throughout Pure Comedy is unsurprisingly gorgeous. The strings, pianos, drums and guitars are all crisp and clean, the arrangements feel big but spacious, and the songs often swell to huge, dramatic moments without ever feeling claustrophobic. It’s so consistently good that you kind of forget how high quality the performances and recordings truly are after just a few songs.
My one big issue with this record is in the songs themselves. Compared to Honeybear and 2012’s Fear Fun, FJM really isn’t having much fun. Aside from “Total Entertainment Forever”, nothing rollicks the way “I’m Writing a Novel” or “Ideal Husband” did, and nothing is as dancey and melodic as “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” or “Chateau Lobby #4“. A friend of mine asked, sincerely, if the whole shtick with the album is that all the songs sound the same and have the same melody. The record is slow and few songs lend themselves to singalongs.
That said, this album is clearly a showcase for Tillman’s lyricism and concepts, and although I don’t love 76 minutes of slow burning piano ballads, they are and always will be the vehicle that carries those aspects of Tillman’s music. Despite the absence of singalongs and bangers, the album is still the most well-organized, most detailed and most critical look at contemporary society that’s come out this year, and if it feels like a disappointment, it’s only because the bar was set so high. I don’t think Pure Comedy was the absolute slam dunk I thought it’d be, which is evidenced in the mixed reactions it’s received, but I still think it’s a tremendous triumph and deserves to be remembered as a landmark album from this decade.
Score: 11 / 13