At a concert this past July, Josh Tillman inadvertently summed up his approach to Pure Comedy, his third album as Father John Misty, with one statement in the midst of an extended rant: “Maybe just take a moment to be really fucking profoundly sad.” While one particular event may have triggered his despondence in that instance (the RNC had just nominated Donald Trump for president), the rest of what he had to say indicated that he was down on all of humanity, not just its “next potential Idiot King,” as he put it in an online note the following day. He also bemoaned a population “so numb and so fucking sated and so gorged on entertainment” that “stupidity just fucking runs the world,” before ending his set after only two songs.
Tillman had already entertained such sentiments with “Bored in the U.S.A.” on 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear. Pure Comedy is essentially a 75-minute extrapolation of that song. But where the stately piano and portrayal of a post-passion corporate dystopia that comprise “Bored” are buoyed by a laugh track and absurdist lines about seeking salvation from “white Jesus,” this time around, there’s no ironic sense of detachment insulating listeners from Tillman’s relentlessly bleak diatribes on The Way We Live Now.
Eschewing I Love You, Honeybear’s genre-hopping eclecticism, Pure Comedy’s understated arrangements of barebones piano and acoustic guitar ensure the focus remains squarely on Tillman’s lyrics and captivating voice, which in terms of tone and delivery remarkably melds austere Leonard Cohen-esque matter-of-factness, billowing would-be croonerisms, and silky-smooth falsetto. It’s certainly a pleasing, reassuring vehicle through which to be informed of all the reasons Tillman believes the human race is doomed.
The substance of Tillman’s prophecies and commentary concerning the decline of Western civilization aren’t original. From wizened ancient philosophers to grammatically challenged Facebook uncles, the last few millennia have been saturated by similar screeds about the vapidity of popular entertainment, technology’s deteriorative effect on individuality, and the follies of gods and politicians. Tillman’s triumph here is managing to filter the whole range of that tradition through a post-millennial membrane that allows for reference points ranging from Plato to Taylor Swift.
Pure Comedy’s understated arrangements ensure the focus remains squarely on Tillman’s lyrics and captivating voice.
Tillman tackles fairly low-hanging fruit on “Ballad of the Dying Man,” eulogizing a man who fears the loss of his righteous message-board crusades against “the homophobes, hipsters, and one percent” will leave the world in a dire state. But he’s much weightier and more ambitious on “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” spinning a Dante’s Inferno-like parable in which he takes the Lord himself on a horrific tour of his “creation’s handiwork.” Neither man nor god receive much benefit of the doubt here. “And now you’ve got the gall to judge us,” Tillman accuses, even after admitting: “It’s just human/Human nature/This place is savage and unjust.”
Tillman’s wide-ranging survey of the “horror show” he’s found himself in ends up resembling a cultural zeitgeist: indulgent yet eloquent, passionate yet apathetic, engorged with media stimulation yet always seeking more, at times cuttingly honest and at others shrouded by alternate personae. Fittingly, then, the album isn’t easy to digest, with its almost uniformly ponderous tempos, lengthy running times, and reams of less than upbeat lyrics. “Total Entertainment Forever” is about the only song here with much rhythmic bounce to it, and with its bleating horn section and already-infamous opening line (“Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift”), it would be very nearly joyous if Tillman weren’t essentially setting up the premise of a horror film in which everyone is helplessly plugged into the grid.
Tillman takes a different approach to making his doleful mindset palatable to the ears on the rest of Pure Comedy by contrasting his bitter musings with heartbreakingly beautiful melodies. He positively revels in this approach on the 13-minute stream-of-consciousness “Leaving LA,” which seems designed to test the listener’s patience before grabbing it back with gorgeous, droning strings and irresistibly meta turns of phrase. “Some 10 verse chorus-less diatribe/Plays as they all jump ship, I used to like this guy/This new shit really kinda makes me want to die,” he sings at one point. At least he’s self-aware—and even after all that, he still ends the song in the middle of a sentence, as if he would have kept going if given the chance.
The remainder of Pure Comedy isn’t as scattered or unwieldy. Indeed, “Leaving LA” and the downtempo title track, which serves as sort of an opening thesis statement for what follows, are the exceptions here; almost every other song is a focused and authoritative study on a single theme. “The Memo” is about how our entertainment preferences are chosen for us in corporate boardrooms; “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” posits the inevitability of our over-reliance on convenience; “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” examines the futility of political polarization.
The result is that by the time Pure Comedy reaches its end, it feels like Tillman has just about covered everything wrong with the world today. And yet, he claims in the closing “In Twenty Years or So”: “It’s a miracle to be alive.” It’s something of a miracle, too, that he’s managed to wring such beauty and profundity out of the mess of a society he sings about.