How on earth do you write political music? As Josh Tillman, under the Father John Misty moniker, knows too well – people are partisan: every individual has an opposing opinion and almost all of them think they’re right. His third album, Pure Comedy, is so masterful because it manages to transcend politics, transcend partisanship and instead take a broader perspective – blending political tragedy with a literal cosmic view, all while retaining a deep intimacy. It was a talent he hinted towards on his previous record, as with the wonderful ‘Holy Shit’ from I Love You, Honeybear in which he sings “Maybe love is just an economy/Based on resource scarcity/What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do/With you and me?” Pure Comedy expands this sentiment over 75 minutes, exploring religion and the realpolitik, but asking (unsurprisingly for a songwriter often classed by critics and YouTube commentators alike as the most arrogant man on the indie scene)… what’s this all got to do with me?
Pure Comedy’s title track certainly lays it’s stall out early as a record that will address the capital-b Big Stuff about life on planet Earth: Tillman crooning “The comedy of man starts like this/Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips/And so Nature, she divines this alternative/We emerged half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end/Is kind enough to fill us in”. He quickly defines himself as a songwriter looking at life from a macro point of view, but his words never lose their sense of affection, or wit. Pure Comedy, for all its nihilism, holds little in the way of naval gazing, or of blind didcatism: Tillman instead sings with great sincerity, concern and pain.
And lord: what a voice he sings with. Our more thoughtful songwriters don’t often come equipped with the pipes to match (I’m looking at you, Zimmerman) but Tillman is a rare exception. As a collection of songs similar in tone and with less of a focus on big choruses, Tillman’s vocal talent still decorates them with melodies abound: little hooks hidden in these “chorus-less diatribes” which stick as hard as many catchier pop songs do. Pop songs these are not though: filled with Melotron whirls, horn sections and 70’s yacht-rock flair – Pure Comedy does sound like one and the same upon first listen; at 75 minutes it almost felt like a slog. But given time, as great albums tend to, this one reveals itself.
Tillman certainly doesn’t hold back on his thematic concerns either. ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ shares Infinite Jest’s concern with the saturation of entertainment over art, but frames absolute apathy as the ultimate mercy. ‘Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution’ paints society’s total breakdown after an idealist’s revolution, a stunning horn section erupting as he recalls how “Industry and commerce toppled to their knees/The gears of progress halted/The underclass set free/The super-ego shatters with our ideologies/The obscene injunction to enjoy life/Disappears as in a dream/And as we return to out native state/To our primal scene/The temperature, it started dropping/The ice floes began to freeze”.
Meanwhile ‘When The God Of Love Returns They’ll Be Hell To Pay’ sees Tillman directly addressing a god he doesn’t believe in, pointing out that it might be wiser to be “a little less ambitious next time you get bored”. ‘The Memo’ may be his finest, and perhaps darkest, critique on the album – much of pop culture gets skewered as a numbing computer asks “do you normally listen to music like this/can I recommend some similar artists?” and Tillman sings “I’m gonna wage the old crusade/Against consciousness/All I need’s a couple winners/To get every loser to fight in it/Keep the golden calf/Just need the bullshit/And they won’t just sell themselves into slavery/They’ll get on their knees and pay you to believe”. Who would let someone condescend to a whole culture in this way, if it weren’t put so goddamn eloquently?
These attacks on the cherished faculties of both sides of the political spectrum certainly help negate accusations of preachiness, but not nearly as much as the album’s more personal cuts. ‘Smoochie’ is a much needed vignette from Tillman’s marriage which helps to level the neurosis, while ‘So I’m Growing On Magic Mountain’ chooses allegory as its battleground; Tillman laying out his worldview through the metaphor of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece The Magic Mountain. The remarkable song, which ends in an enrapturing five minute instrumental break led by some Johnny Greenwood-level synths, makes complete sense situated in Tillman’s apocalyptic world. In the book the protagonist notably notes that “I know I am talking nonsense, but I’d rather go rambling on, and partly expressing something I find it difficult to express, than to keep on transmitting faultless platitudes”, which seems essentially to be Tillman’s attitude towards every song that he writes. “Rambling on” is an accusation which has certainly been levelled at the LP’s other epic, ‘Leaving LA’, in which Tillman bares his soul, childhood memories and present neuorosis for thirteen minutes with no break to speak of. It sounds like a horribly solipsistic idea, but it comes off wonderfully – such absolute confessions are very rare in music and, even more uncommonly, so self aware. It’s sprawl is soundtracked by string arranger Gavin Bryars, an icon in his own right who does some of the best work of his fifty-year career on this song.
The denouement of the track, where Tillman reflects on a childhood incident where he almost choked on candy while his mother cried and Fleetwood Mac played on the radio, singing “that’s when I first saw the comedy won’t stop for/Even little boys dying in the department store”, reflects the outlook of the album best. The ‘pure comedy’ of the title is not portrayed as anything like a question to be solved or an enemy to be overcome: it is just the state of being we happen to find ourselves in by simply being alive. As such, the LP is not full of protest songs, and the final track on the album sees Tillman simply enjoying the company of his wife and remarking on the miracle it is to be here at all. It is not a cop out, and nor is it nihilistic – it’s simply the only worldview that makes sense given what’s come before it. To hear it put to song is remarkably life affirming.
A record as far reaching as this is never going to be perfect. ‘Two Different Perspectives’ is the most minimal song sonically and yet the most lacking thematically – essentially boiling down to: people have different opinions… hardly the greatest insight. Meanwhile, despite it’s evocative opening imagery, ‘Birdie’ fails to live up to it’s premise. Some may call Father John Misty arrogant, or pretentious: both of these things are almost certainly true. His interviews scream the former, and you certainly have to be the latter to even attempt to tackle topics such as these in song – but i’d rather somebody dare to do so than nobody try at all. After all, the result is a record which contains some of the best songs written so far this decade: a firm rejection of life lived in denial and indulging only in total entertainment.
Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones