To misquote Voltaire, if Father John Misty (real name Josh Tillman) didn’t exist, modern music critics would have to create him. After all, his blend of on-the-nose social criticism and dark comedy slots nicely into the space that a deluge of bloggers and Lester Bangs wannabes have spent the last four decades slowly carving out. The things people write about Tillman’s music and the music itself are contingent on one another – these songs are designed to reinforce ideological bubbles, not burst them, and tracks like ‘Bored In The USA’ are thinkpiece triggers disguised as indie pop hits.
Which sometimes seems like Tillman’s point. Ignoring a few of his more irritating press-baiting gimmicks (hogging the spotlight with a dull take on the Velvet Underground and a duller, made-up story explaining it) Tillman has always seemed at least partially aware of his intellectual hypocrisy. The fruit he aims for might be low hanging, but that’s the joke, and his persona – part David Foster Wallace-fattened atheistic preacher, part washed up rockstar – seems to be about blurring the line between high and low art.
At least, that is, Tillman used to seem aware: his new record Pure Comedy is his most stubborn, self-obsessed work yet. It is, from beginning to end, a mishmash of barbs within barbs, post-post ironic asides and crash courses in existentialist philosophy about as comprehensive as the Wikipedia page on nihilism. Although the record does contain the twists and turns that make him entertaining – from his admirable handle of baroque pop tropes to his deliberately cutesy rhymes – it’s also jam packed with everything that makes him deeply, deeply frustrating, with casual sexism disguised as woke comedy just the tip of a Titanic shattering iceberg.
In that way, your tolerance for the record will depend entirely on whether that brand of “the joke is that there’s no joke” philosophical psychobabble turns your stomach or not. Be warned: there’s a lot of that in here, from a stunningly lazy, ‘Fitter Happier’-esque attack on music streaming services called ‘The Memo’, to ‘Ballad Of The Dying Man’, a batch of first-year university-level poetry read over piano tinkling.
There’s also a lot of bloat. Say what you like about I Love You Honeybear, but it was not a record that messed around, one way or the other – songs were chiselled, as punchy and off-setting as crude jokes. Here, Tillman seems to have lost his internal editor, and some of the tracks far outstay their welcome. ‘Leaving LA’, at 13-minutes long, never really does much to justify its running time, and the twinkling ‘So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain’ lacks the bite of Tillman’s most entertaining work.
Ultimately, Tillman seems to have fallen into a self-made trap, resting too hard on Randy Newman-esque piano balladry and some tacked on string arrangements. Nothing scorches, or really wrestles for your attention: songs like ‘Two Wildly Different Perspectives’ flow by like so much molasses.
And yeah, there’s that “bedding Taylor Swift” line to deal with too. What with its opening yucky come-on directed at a pop artist who has received far too many of them already (ahem, “I made that bitch famous”) ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ is immediately ruined, falling apart in a cluster of bad metaphors and stiff satire.
That’s not to say that Pure Comedy is a total write off. Indeed, ‘Birdie’ might be the most interesting song Tillman has ever written under the Father John Misty name, precisely thanks to its sincerity. An uncomplicated ode that sits slap bang in the centre of a record dotted with hat tips and knowing winks, it’s a welcome change of pace. Same too goes for ‘Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution’. Despite its laughably contrived title, it’s actually a lot of fun, full of charmingly grim asides about the hindrances one encounters living in a post-apocalyptic world.
But even these outliers will test the patience of many – there’s only so much hoity-toity wordplay about the end of the world one can take, after all. Even when it works, Pure Comedy still bandies about the place with all the grace of a tool who thinks skim reading Nietzsche gives them an edge. When it comes down to it, the big existential question hanging over Pure Comedy is not, “What is entertainment?” or “Can comedy be funny if our lives are ultimately meaningless?” It’s more precise than that. No more complicated than: “Who gives a fuck?”
‘Pure Comedy’ is out Friday, 7th April. Father John Misty will return to Australia this year as part of the Splendour In The Grass 2017 lineup.