Last night Father John Misty screened his new film Pure Comedy in a small, old cinema in the heart of Los Angeles called Cinefamily. He said the screening was mostly held for him — mentioning several times how self-centered the event seemed, first a film about his record then a sort-of impromptu performance of a few new songs off it — but in reality, the screening was for us, the people who care about Josh Tillman and his work.
In the age of social media oversharing (full disclosure: I live on selfies), perhaps artists forget that sharing themselves with us, intimately or otherwise, is still a gift. Listening to the tracks off Pure Comedy, that’s the thought I kept coming back to: This album is a gift. The film, even moreso, because it lets the listener into the most tender, unassuming part of making a record, the slog of the studio. Since Tillman has opted to leave behind his own social media channels, fans haven’t gotten a lot of these candid, humorous moments from the artist, and his film offers a distillation of his working persona.
If Fear Fun was a commentary on the psych-wonderland that is living and creating in LA, and I Love You, Honeybear was a commentary on the batshit wonder of falling in love, then Pure Comedy is a commentary on the highest questions of existence, the cosmos, and human nature. It comes at a time when many of us are grappling with what humanity’s end goal is, what our moral compass should guide us toward, what will happen when we die, and if that is going to be sometime soon.
It’s hard to pull off any kind of art that tackles concepts of this magnitude without coming off arrogant, cheesy, or inaccessible, but Tillman does it every time. And with this album in particular, he’s done it in a period when we need artists to face down the specters of evil and corruption that have risen to unimaginable heights. In the video for the record’s title track “Pure Comedy” — the one that introduces us to the record — Tillman pulls no punches, flickering images of Trump melt into a series of cartoon panels that portray humans at their most banal and bestial.
“Vid by Matthew Daniel Siskin, and everyone in America,” the meta-data on Youtube offers. But even when Tillman is exploring the often inane and ultimate insignificance of human existence, he can’t fall into apathy; the end of the song pulls up sharply: “Hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.”
That line may actually be the driving force behind the film about recording Pure Comedy, and the album itself, because as much as the screening was for the people who care about Tillman himself, it was also a chance to celebrate them. If you work within the music industry, the number of people who are involved with an album’s release is a given, but these people mostly go unnoticed or forgotten, and this film attempts to challenge that in some ways. As someone who used to occupy the rather unassuming position of drummer (in Fleet Foxes), perhaps Tillman knows this better than most.
Or, if you consider that he put out eight albums as J. Tillman and barely blipped on the industry radar, perhaps his desire to chronicle the process of making this album will resonate in a deeper way. When different collaborators popped up in the film last night, small sections of the theater would erupt into spontaneous applause at the pleasure of seeing their friend on a big screen. Call it human nature, it was pleasantly unpretentious. I’d even say it was cute.
Of course, Pure Comedy the movie is full of Tillman’s signature sardonic twists, the parts of the film or snippets from songs off the album are darkly funny, not knee-slappers. What strikes Tillman as comic may not be funny to everyone, but the stark description of the men who wrote the Bible as “woman-hating epileptics” or humanity itself as “race of demented monkeys” is hilarious, especially if you hear these lines in a room full of other people who similarly connect to the weird pathos of our strange existence.
Though Tillman wrote these songs last year, his interrogation of Christianity and its obsession with “zombies” (Jesus) and “celestial virgins” (Mary) feels particularly timely yesterday given that group is the one who spurs most of the sweeping anti-abortion legislation that was passed yesterday. Hell, it’s not like the first half of the song “Pure Comedy” gives such a detailed account of childbirth for no reason. Even when his politics aren’t overt or specifically focused, the themes of them resonate within the surreality of what’s happening around us under President Trump.
In everything he does, Tillman is both participating in the realm of songwriting and performance, and critiquing the spectacle of it. In some ways, this meta-commentary is fueled by that very tension, but it also reveals that it actually isn’t that hard to be a participant in an ecosystem while maintaining enough perspective to be critical of it. Or maybe it is very hard, and that’s why so few artists are willing or able to do it. But he makes it look easy, and does it with such tenderness that it’s never alienating.
With Pure Comedy, Tillman isn’t claiming to have all the answers, but he sure as hell isn’t letting his economy, country, and culture go by unaddressed and unchallenged, which he easily could’ve done. I am a fan of Father John Misty, and listening to new music from Tillman is a reminder of just how much I admire him as an artist. I admire how literary he is, the way he can bend a phrase to suit a silly purpose, then whisk it back into irony with the flick of a word. I admire the way he envisions songs as massive, sweeping, orchestral numbers with strings and choirs, and also as tiny, sweet melodies played on a piano with a single voice. I admire how he can write a pop hook sharp enough to match Taylor Swift’s arched eyebrow, and I admire that he doesn’t stop there, when it would be so easy to do so.
I admire his dedication to not go running off into the land of Lady Gaga pop songwriting, his commitment to investigating the world around him and to ask questions that run deeper than money or fame. I admire that he never lets his philosophical interrogations lead to the obvious answer of despair, and continues to create funny, warm, moving and empathetic music and film despite a rising tide of bitterness and desperation all around us, or perhaps even because of it. His album is still coming out on the independent label Sub Pop, he still shows up to the theater and smokes cigarettes with the rest of the crowd in the back garden.
To remain earnest even when you know it will make you vulnerable is a difficult choice, and even if a vein of irony runs deep in Tillman’s art, the heart of it always comes back to love. That is a gift, and it’s almost funny when you really think about it.