Father John Misty: Pure Comedy review – wonderfully uneasy listening

Josh Tillman’s dark pronouncements, set to luscious, 70s-style orchestration, update the idea of the confessional singer-songwriter for the post-truth era

Towards the end of Pure Comedy’s 13-minute centrepiece track, Josh Tillman offers a glum assessment of the album’s commercial chances. His career’s current status, he claims, is under threat. “I’m beginning to begin to see the end of how it all goes down between them and me / Some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe plays as they all jump ship,” he sings, eight verses into the 10-verse chorus-less diatribe of Leaving LA. “‘I used to really like this guy / This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die.’”

Even if it seems unlikely that Pure Comedy is actually going to end Tillman’s career – numerous excitable reviews certainly suggest the opposite – you can see still why he might have had some trepidation about releasing it. On the surface, it doesn’t sound that different from his 2015 breakthrough album, I Love You, Honeybear. A little starker and more subtle, perhaps – the wilfully cluttered Phil Spector-isms of its predecessor are largely confined to one track, Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution – but the main musical influence audibly remains the records Elton John made in his first flush of superstardom.

As before, Captain Fantastic haunts the vocal melodies and their delivery throughout; had lyricist Bernie Taupin had some kind of existential crisis during the making of Madman Across the Water, the results might have sounded like this. And it’s in the lyrics that the really dramatic, potentially alienating shift has taken place. I Love You, Honeybear and Father John Misty’s 2012 debut, Fear Fun, offered a very 21st-century spin on a well-worn musical trope. He certainly sounded like an old-fashioned confessional singer-songwriter – his music frequently seemed like a product of early-70s Los Angeles, where baring one’s soul became very big business indeed – but Tillman seemed to have changed the very notion of the confessional singer-songwriter to suit the post-truth era. He wasn’t baring his soul, but singing in character; a character he claimed had come to him in a hallucinogen-inspired vision, no less, and who occasionally referred to Josh Tillman as another person. Or, at least, he was some of the time. On I Love You, Honeybear’s collection of love songs, scabrous pen-portraits and state-of-the-nation addresses, it was virtually impossible to grasp what was heartfelt and what was arch: reviewers trying to evaluate its lead track, Bored in the USA, couldn’t seem to work out whether it was searing satire or painful honesty.

Pure Comedy still has odd moments you might usefully describe using the prefix “meta”, not least The Memo, on which the lyrics unexpectedly dissolve into the kind of needy questionnaire manufacturers email you after you buy something online. “Do you usually listen to music like this?” “Can we recommend some similar artists?” it asks, while a robotic voice mouths platitudes: “This is my song of the summer … This guy really gets me.” But mainly, the sense of ironic distance – the feeling that it might all be a big joke on Tillman’s part – is noticeable by its absence. Instead, there’s an unpalatable assessment of modern life, devoid of the canned laughter that muddied the similarly themed Bored in the USA.

You could argue that what he has to say isn’t exactly new. He’s certainly not the first person to inform us that the planet is doomed, that the population is becoming increasingly disconnected and immune to horror, that we’re over-satiated with vapid entertainment and over-inflated with a sense of our own importance (“the homophobes, hipsters and 1% / The false feminists he’s managed to detect / Oh, who will critique them once he’s left?” ponders the social media-obsessed titular character in Thoughts of a Dying Man), that politicians are venal and self-interested, that religion is a waste of time but humanism doesn’t look too appealing either, given how stupidly humans behave. But it’s hard to think of anyone who’s done it this potently. The lyrics teem with flashes of black humour (in the post-apocalyptic world conjured in Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution, where humans are hunted down as they scavenge for food, “we’re all still pretty good at eating on the run”), while the kind of pomposity that usually accompanies grand statements such as these, replete with references to Sophocles and Dante and The Book of Revelations, is ameliorated by Tillman’s scourging self-awareness: “Oh great, that’s just what we all need – another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddam seriously.”

It’s also hard to think of anyone who has done it with better tunes: a great deal of the album’s power comes from the way the bleakness of the lyrics is offset by the lusciousness of the melodies and the comforting familiarity of the sound, with its acoustic guitars and beautifully subtle orchestrations. There’s something hugely impressive about coming up with an album that somehow manages to be both incredibly discomfiting and easy to listen to.

For all the debt to Elton, the 70s work Pure Comedy most recalls in mood is Neil Young’s mournful On the Beach, another LA album thick with apocalyptic visions, dire premonitions about America’s future, savage wit and glum assessments of commercial success. Certainly, its overall message doesn’t seem that different from Young’s mournful 43-year-old parting shot: “You’re all just pissing in the wind.” That album functioned as a catharsis: Young’s work was never as bleak again. Whether Pure Comedy serves the same purpose for Tillman remains to be seen. “Hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got,” sings Tillman on Pure Comedy’s title track: it’s hard to work out whether that represents a sliver of hope amid the darkness, or if it’s the most damning line of all.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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