For better, and, if we’re all being true with ourselves, sometimes worse, Joshua Tillman has used his Father John Misty project as a way to plumb how he really feels about things. From drugs and non-Missionary sex, to his wife, his complicated relationship with his evangelical upbringing, and his deep cynicism, to being worried he’s too old to make a living as a folk singer, and trying to fill the hole that exists at the heart of every modern human, he’s constantly battling Big Ideas via his indie folk albums. Depending on your perspective on him—most people either dismiss him entirely, or view him as some creative weirdo genius, there’s no in-between—he either wildly succeeds at this or fails miserably.
Pure Comedy is not going to bridge the gap between those groups anymore than any single album can bridge any gap between us as people. But there are some things I can write here with certainty: Pure Comedy is Tillman’s most audacious, ambitious, questioning, monstrous album. It’s also the best album I’ve heard so far this year.
Coming on like a demented Elton John album recorded after a horrific event that altered humanity, like 2014’s I Love You, Honeybear, Pure Comedy is a broad concept album. It imagines a trash-surrounded earth where humans are left by a clueless god to work through the “horror show” of modern existence; a future where we never leave the Oculus Rift (or our sex partner in that reality, Taylor Swift), and where revolutions have mostly given way to “Total Entertainment Forever.” Then the album takes a sharp turn to trying to get a now earth-bound god to answer for having the “gall to judge us” after setting us up without an explicit playbook and allowing us to fuck and destroy everything in our path. There are also divergences into the futile and shallow emptiness of having a musical career, and trying to get a bird to understand humanity and where we’re going.
That leaves a lot of edges to grab onto, but I’m going to start with “The Ballad of the Dying Man,” a tender piano-led song about a guy who’s on his deathbed, wondering if his life of social media outrage amounted to what he hoped it would, and praying for more time to strike back at “dilettantes and fools.” There’s a line in the third verse that is as strong as any poem you’ll read this year:
“Eventually the dying man takes his final breath /
But first checks his newsfeed to see what he’s about to miss /
It occurs to him a bit late in the game /
You leave as clueless as we came /
The rented heavens to the shadows in the cave /
We’ll all be wrong, someday"
That’s the major difference between Comedy and its predecessors: while it’s not hard to imagine people knee-jerk rejecting the idea of yet another semi-morose concept album from Tillman, it’s hard to argue that the album’s central conceits—that we’re all lost, that entertainment is becoming increasingly hard to dissociate from actual existence, that we spend too much time down in our phones and not enough time looking up and wondering why we’re doing what we’re doing-- are, in some ways, not the very questions of our time. This album wasn’t necessarily written in these times, but it was written for these times, these times when a TV host can ride his way into the White House, and when you can order food, socks, records and weed, experience realistic sexual encounters, and have access to nearly all of the entertainment in modern history without leaving your armchair, and still feel bored, lonely, and upset. It’s an album about feeling empty, and being mad and wanting someone to answer for that.
“The comedy of man, starts like this /
our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips /
so nature, she divines this alternative /
we emerge half-formed and hope /
whoever greets us on the other end, is kind enough to fill us in”
It’s not often that a performer can admit to not having any answers, and that’s one of the things that makes Pure Comedy so rewarding; Tillman isn’t here as some savior--though people will misread this as that--he’s just wondering how we can accept fate as it is, an existence that seems like, “something a madman would conceive.” I wasn’t sold on Tillman as a performer till now; if you had told me I’d be nodding knowingly when he sings on “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain” I’d have laughed you out the building. Father John Misty has long been lauded as one of the best acts in indie, but this feels like his definitive statement. The conceptual masterpiece that’s been needed in indie rock for at least 5 years.
The promotion cycle for Pure Comedy started in earnest last July, when Tillman walked offstage at a little music festival he was booked at, after he went on something of a sermon, saying “stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid” and telling his audience they shouldn’t clap for him, they should be sad for themselves. He then launched into what became the album’s centerpiece--”Leaving L.A.,” the most self-reflective, career critiquing song in a songbook full of them. He sings of worrying that he’s just another “white guy who takes himself too god damn seriously” and how his fans will eventually “jump ship” because he wants to make 10-verse songs (“Leaving L.A.”), and how he’s distraught that people are buying his albums, even though he’s worried he’s a giant phony. The rest of the album is for the previously mentioned Big Ideas, but “Leaving L.A.” is something special; a song that is in fact a criticism of the album that surrounds it. It might come off as winkingly meta, but it also proves that of all the white guys slinging guitars at your local record store, Father John Misty is the smartest, and the most self-aware. He also has the best album to sling.