With Kanye West presently on hiatus and Noel Gallagher stranded between solo albums and Oasis-related anniversaries, the new reigning champ of the press junket is none other than Josh Tillman. Every interview that Tillman has conducted to promote Pure Comedy, his third album as Father John Misty, has been essential reading for fans and haters alike. Baiting reactionary music critics — whom he regards with open, oft-hilarious disdain — at every turn, Tillman has sounded off on the soullessness of the pop-music industry and the provocative, somewhat jokey nature of his own semi-celebrity with endlessly quotable élan.
But now that Pure Comedy is set to finally arrive on Friday, I’m sorry to report that the bread-and-circuses show is about to end. Reports that Tillman is merely an irony-addled prankster are gravely mistaken. No matter the title, the laughs on Pure Comedy are strictly of the bitter, whistling-past-the-graveyard variety. Tillman’s album is a fire-and-brimstone sermon — a scathing, even caustic, indictment of an engorged culture that has feasted on the empty calories of facile entertainment, baseless outrage, and spiritually bankrupt establishment religion to the point of imminent collapse.
There are also moments of beauty, when Tillman’s dulcet tenor swells against simple piano chords buoyed by atmospheric orchestrations in a manner that’s frequently breathtaking. The result is a singular, frankly staggering statement that I can only liken to Sly Stone’s landmark protest record There’s A Riot Goin’ as performed by John Denver.
That Tillman’s sardonic though ultimately mournful lyrics come packaged in sumptuous pocket symphonies recalling the highs of ’70s SoCal pop does little to water down his ample supply of bile. Pure Comedy is the most misanthropic LP by a high-profile artist since Kanye West’s Yeezus, though it might in fact exceed even that famously churlish record. At least Kanye presumed the existence of a glorious God (himself). In the jaundiced universe of Pure Comedy, God is either bad joke invented by humans desperately grasping for meaning in a moronically cruel world (like in the darkly comic title track, which reimagines the Christian creation myth as a death spiral toward late-capitalism) or an overmatched man-child unable to bring about the apocalypse foretold in scripture because Earth is already too far gone (the self-explanatory “When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay.”)
Listening to Pure Comedy for the past few weeks has made me feel that same sickness in the pit of my stomach that I experienced while watching the news on election night. Hardly a pleasurable sensation, though I suspect Tillman would take it as a compliment. The overriding thesis of Pure Comedy is that modern culture is killing itself with distractions. But on his own album, Tillman is sure to underline man’s awfulness time and again, often reducing the music down to a spare, stately piano in order to put the words front and center.
Pure Comedy was completed one month before Donald Trump was elected president, so the album’s strident broadsides about the self-immolation of mankind can be technically described as prescient. (“I feel like the boy who cried wolf,” Tillman told The Guardian.) Though the point of the wistful “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution” — which sounds like Imagine-era John Lennon with the venom of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band guise — is that self-destruction tends to be cyclical and constant throughout time. In one of the album’s many apocalypse scenarios, Tillman extrapolates a world that has been leveled by climate change, in which men and women are sent back to the caves, where they thrive for a time before they get bored and set about re-inventing consumerist culture.
On paper, Pure Comedy might seem like an exhausting exercise in bleak hectoring. Admittedly, it is exhausting at times. But Tillman’s still-evolving proficiency as a writer redeems even his sternest lectures. A natural-born smart-aleck who occasionally lapsed into smarm on 2012’s Fear Fun and 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman has matured into a bruised romantic who poses as a cynic as a defense mechanism, which makes his flair for invective both a blessing and a curse. The silly controversy over the Taylor Swift reference in “Total Entertainment Forever” — a song about a dystopian hellscape in which virtual-reality sex with pop stars is depicted as bad, which is hardly an endorsement of dystopian hellscapes — bears this out. (For the record, rhyming “Taylor Swift” with “Oculus Rift” is just flat-out good writing, no matter the inevitable fall-out.)