In his novel Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut warned that human brains, those merry pranksters stored in our skulls, can sometimes turn against their hosts. They, he said, “tell their owners, in effect, ‘Here is a crazy thing we could actually do, probably, but we would never do it, of course. It’s just fun to think about.’” In true fashion, and short order, a cosmic punchline followed. “And then, as though in trances, the people would actually do it.” Three decades after Vonnegut wrote those words, a reality television star sits in the Oval Office. So it goes.
Human folly was a topic near and dear to Vonnegut’s heart, particularly in his later novels. And it’s a theme Josh Tillman takes as the blueprint for his breathtaking third album as Father John Misty. He’s named the record Pure Comedy, though not because it’s meant to garner many laughs. The opposite is true. It’s, instead, a reference to his cynical worldview, one that’s altogether absurdist and in every way dead serious.
“The comedy of man starts like this,” Tillman sings on Pure Comedy’s title track. “Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips.” I suspect Vonnegut would’ve approved of this postmodern, materialist sentiment. He would’ve, too, nodded along with the caustic, and surprisingly humane, philosophy that follows. These thirteen songs, all vats of acid, drip-drop their contents onto many deserving targets. (Including the puckish artist himself.) The Lord’s work, here, is carried out by the unlikeliest of apostles – a godless, heartsick troubadour. There’s, of course, a crucial caveat worth mentioning. Results may vary depending on the listener’s various tribal affiliations (religious, social, political). And most of all, whether you have a longstanding allergy to Tillman's public persona.
Therein lies the rub, the self-imposed trap within which Tillman finds himself ensnared. Highly publicized, contrarian antics accumulate and take their toll (just ask Lady Gaga). See, for example, his recent eyebrow-raising interviews and instantly controversial SNL performances. Still, nothing counters the naysayers better than gorgeous, irresistible music (just ask Kanye West).
Father John Misty has, for good measure, placed an extra hurdle in front of him. Pure Comedy is a brilliant, multi-faceted jewel. But it requires upfront work and a lot of patience from the listener. Tillman’s melodies are, at first, elusive. Tempos dawdle. Runtimes splay. Many musical dots (such as verses, choruses, and bridges) seem disconnected or nonexistent. Yet after repeated spins (four, in my case), loose threads find their respective partners. That’s when this magnificent 75-minute work interlocks, becomes whole, and unveils its immense riches. What was once incomprehensible – and, let’s be honest, a little boring – all at once makes sense. It’s as if a mustachioed wizard waved his artisanal wand and produced, from its tip, a collection of campfire sing-alongs.
Pure Comedy, with its explosive lyrics and luxe sonics, is a grenade wrapped in an ermine cozy. It picks up where I Love You, Honeybear, specifically “Bored in the USA” and “Holy Shit”, left off. Those tracks widened Honeybear’s scope from the domestic to the global. Philosophical flirtations, and moral proscriptions, peppered the two here and there. Pure Comedy’s aim extends even further. This is Tillman at his most grand, both far-reaching and, in one notable case, naked.
Few are safe from Father John Misty’s ridicule. Religion takes the heaviest beating. Believers are “totally obsessed with risen zombies, celestial virgins, [and] magic tricks.” On “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”, the Second Coming is an opportunity for Tillman to offer Jesus an earful of metaphysical grievances. (Dostoevsky, I suspect, would’ve approved.) The human species doesn’t fare any better. We’re either “a race of demented monkeys” or self-obsessed narcissists. (On “Ballad of the Dying Man”, the title character consults a social media feed to see what he’ll miss after his final breath.) The shit list continues: tech geeks (who “dream of a world written in lines of code”), our planet (“this godless rock that refuses to die”), politicians (“goons” and “clowns”), capitalism (which meets its demise on “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”), Father John Misty fans (“I'm merely a minor fascination to manic virginal lust and college dudes”), political partisans (the sole topic of the ironically titled “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”), the contemporary art world (“if it’s fraud or art, they’ll pay you to believe”), Amy Grant (who’s shot in a verbal drive-by on “Leaving LA”). He even mansplains the nature of existence to a bird (“Birdie”). Josh Tillman, you see, is mad as hell and isn’t going to take this – any of this, pick a topic – anymore.
To be sure, Father John Misty isn’t exempt from these lyrical flagellations. Pure Comedy’s stunning, folk-fantasia centerpiece, “Leaving LA”, is Tillman’s 13-minute opportunity to turn the tables on himself. It’s a sequel of sorts to Fear Fun’s “Funtimes in Babylon” (where he once sang, “look out Hollywood, here I come”). Now he’s hightailing it, from the Golden State to New Orleans, and taking stock of his life. This “ten-verse chorus-less diatribe” is a sweeping Dylanesque narrative spiked with literary references, mythological interactions, and stinging self-doubt. “Oh great, that's just what we all need,” he sings from the viewpoint of the Buddhist demon Mara. “Another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously.” Later Tillman returns, Proust-like, to childhood and his first encounter with music (a Fleetwood Mac song). Choking on a piece of watermelon candy, his art and philosophy fuse together in a JCPenney showroom. “That's when I first saw the comedy won't stop,” he sighs, “for even little boys dying in department stores.”
Despite all the bile, and there’s plenty to go around, Pure Comedy brims with a love for humanity. Tillman’s anger is, I think, accumulated bitterness. Though his idealism may be worn down, somewhere a kernel remains intact, and it glows. This much is obvious enough from the album’s execution. Tune out the lyrics (hard, but not impossible), and you’re left with exquisite music. Heartbreaking orchestrations swell and recede, when necessary, but they never overwhelm. Tillman’s vocals, which (for me) forever resurrect the ghost of Gram Parsons, are always at the forefront. And they’re spectacular. On the album closer “In Twenty Years or So”, Tillman sings, “it's a miracle to be alive.” And I believe him. A handful of superb records have already been released in 2017. Pure Comedy’s scope, ambition, and beauty herald something bigger: the year’s first great album. A