Ladies and gentlemen please settle down: Father John Misty‘s brand new work was published out of the blue and it is a far cry from the innocent enchanting sweetness of our beloved “I love you Honeybear”(2015) and “Fear Fun”(2012).
“Pure Comedy”, Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty’s third full-length work released on April 7th for Sub Pop independent record label as usual immediately magnetized the critics interest and the result was an overwhelming as much as surprising major success.
To be frank, explaining the reason of its incredibly positive response is actually not immediate nor easy least of all, just like the album itself is. In fact, what you perceive right away at a very first listen is something like a large split or something discording you wouldn’t be able to pinpoint at once. Anyway, after a few more focused listenings, you slowly get that what really calls the shots is what in literature we would call the concept of the “Double“.
For what concerns the musical structure, that’s clear right from the first track which also resumes and represents the whole work “Pure Comedy“: a simple still catching piano serenade theme made of major tones and an engaging melodic line, that in the end isn’t that far from what I Love you Honeybear’s feeled.
So what about the lyrics? Well, this is it.
While in the previous album dreamy melodies matched wonderfully with passioned, hopeful words creating a full-sense-experience which left you wondering with your eyes open, now the same positive, dreamy melodies mentioned before are proposed again, but spoiled by disillusioned, fatalistic, even apocalyptic still ironic considerations about human nature first, then consequently the decay of society under capitalism, the mass culture with a special focus on entertainment. So that the very first thing we hear is a TV studio chatter, just a moment before the melancholic piano, which is the dominant instrument, starts “soundtraking” Josh Tillman’s storytelling about our damned, addled race just like he was telling it to a future’s or another world’s being: “The comedy of man starts like this” and the sarcasm appears right from the second line: “Our brains are way too big for our mothers hips”.
It actually seems like FJM took the chords from a love song and adapted them to his arid, cruel, exasperating pessimistic view of the world and successfully underlined the contrast between music and words emphasizing both of them in the very opposite extremes.
The perceptual result is a melancholic, bitter ballad filled with caustic sarcasm referring to the tragic nature of “ordinary” violence, pain and shallowness with disenchantment.
The following track “Total entertainment forever” describes itself: “When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes / Plugged into our hubs / skin and bones / A frozen smile on every face.” Even if references to David Foster Wallace’s dystopian novel Infinite Jest are unambiguous in their doomsday visions, this is the happiest point for what concerns the melodic part of the work both in the unforgettable saxophone riffs and in FJM’s warm mood which matched to his ruthless sarcasm could make you take him seriously when he sings: “Can you believe how far we’ve come? / In the New Age / The freedom to have what you want“. Actually, in spite of its incredibly tragically true lyrics after a few listening you will probably find yourself humming it while having a shower, and pardon if it’s taken for granted but much of Josh Tillman’s charm lays in his talent in purpose-made spoken words, as he confesses himself in “Leaving LA”: “So I never learned to play the lead guitar / I always more preferred the speaking parts”.
If “Total entertainment forever” was the highest point in melody, “Leaving LA” is without a shadow of doubt the heart of the whole work and likely its true identity: it is a thirteen-minute autobiography which, says Tillman, took about three years to be completed. And it is not hard to guess why: it is actually a long deep consideration about himself through memories and self confessions in which he tries to talk to himself and about himself as Joshua, in the attempt of kind of understanding in which measure Father John Misty’s character takes part in his life in what ends to be one of the most passionate and revelatory pieces of his career.
Eventually, what is incredibly exasperating about Father John Misty is that he never lacked in highlighting his disillusioned awareness about all potentials critiques, just like he does in his apocalyptic disillusionment about human fate, and he does it in Leaving LA with what sounds like a reference to Siddharta Gautama: “Mara taunts me ‘neath the tree / She’s like, ‘Oh, great, that’s just what they all need / Another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.”
Apart from the very first half of the album (Pure Comedy, Total entertainment forever, Ballad of the dying man, Leaving LA), what is left over is almost difficult to be deeply and entirely appreciated after one or two listenings and it nearly follows on the heels of the first part in an encore of the same (still valuable) concepts without any worthy sound originality.
Maybe we will never know whether this was a sort of done-on-purpose “fuck off” message from Josh Tillman or not, and “Pure Comedy” will always leave you full of questions more than answers, but what is sure is that Father John Misty keeps embodying one of the most influential, talented and naturally charming songwriters of our time, so let’s see what’s next!