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.)
Now more than ever, Tillman is worthy of comparison to his heroes, Leonard Cohen and Philip Roth. (Pure Comedy even includes a sort-of sequel to Cohen’s classic torch song “Bird On The Wire” called “Birdie,” in which Tillman encourages the bird that once inspired Cohen to feel free to flee this rotten planet.) Another reference point is Randy Newman, a fellow California satirist who empathized, sans judgement, with the damaged characters in his songs. (If the internet had existed in the ’70s, Newman might’ve written about social media instead of racist southerners — or maybe racist southerners on social media.) Pure Comedy‘s funniest track is “Ballad Of The Dying Man,” in which the narrator laments all of the people “that will go unchecked” online once he’s gone — “the homophobes, hipsters and one percent / The false feminists he’d managed to detect / Who will critique them once he’s left?” But the more Pure Comedy lashes out, the deeper it aches. Tillman doesn’t hold himself at a remove from what he describes. Trust him: He hates himself, too.
Pure Comedy‘s centerpiece is “Leaving L.A.,” an astonishing 13-minute monologue-as-song highlighted by British composer Gavin Bryars’ spine-tingling string parts. (Pure Comedy was recorded at famed Hollywood studio United Recording, which also berthed albums by Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles.) “Leaving L.A.” sums up the album’s grand themes — the soul-sucking phoniness of mainstream culture, Tillman’s self-deprecating view himself as “another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously,” how we’re all doomed, and how we need to forge connections with other humans in the meantime. But in an interview with The Financial Times, Tillman called the song “this giant cop-out,” in which digressions about Big Topics fill up space between verses that address his decision to move with his wife to New Orleans in 2013 under an apparent cloud. (“I can stop drinking and you can write your script,” Tillman sings ominously in the final verse.)
“Leaving L.A.” is a skeleton key for understanding the rest of Pure Comedy — the “white guy who takes himself too seriously” bit is indicative of Tillman’s self-reflexive tendency in interviews to deflect criticism by preemptively deconstructing it. But the non-stop hand-wringing about the state of the world on Pure Comedy is just talking around what’s really on Tillman’s mind. The rare moments of tenderness on Pure Comedy depict romantic relationships as bulwarks against an encroaching darkness. In “Smoochie,” Tillman fights off “personal demons [that] are screamin'” thanks to the soothing words of a companion, who advises that “concealment feeds the fear.” Even the climactic “In Twenty Years Or So,” where Tillman predicts that “this human experiment will reach its violent end” in a couple of decades at most, fixates on a perfect moment — a couple about to enjoy its second round of drinks while the restaurant’s piano player plunks away at Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place.” The human race might be craven and callow, Tillman surmises, but people still make life worth living.
Is Pure Comedy the best album of 2017? Possibly. Is it the most 2017 album of 2017? Unquestionably. I have no idea how well this record will age, or if I’ll have any urge to play it even three months from now. But, in this uncertain and terrifying time, I find Pure Comedy to be a profoundly moving experience, as a salve for wounded souls and an EKG for a stricken society.