What to expect when you’re expecting Father John Misty
Today, April 7, Josh Tillman will release “Pure Comedy,” his third record under the name Father John Misty, and this writer is going to go out on a limb and bet it will be one of the best of the year.
If it’s not, I will cry and you can punch me.
Tillman is polarizing for both his shameless posturing and devotion to acerbic takedowns of the absurd self-delusions that veil mass consciousness.
He is a hyper-self-aware maestro championing a kind of reluctant romanticism that he seems to see as both inherently prosaic in its sheer, tedious everydayness but also something deeply profound. Unapologetic in his utilization of, really, everything to make a point, Tillman is a complex mix of persona and person. He uses the pseudonym to separate himself from what he’s saying and turns that into a critique of the very act of performance — making fun of the hand that feeds him. Every move he makes in the public eye is an interactive theater art piece, and he’s trying to say something about you.
It’s this quasi-parodying identity that lets him get away with claiming responsibility for the theft of a rose-quartz crystal from a Los Angeles juice boutique and then unveiling a line of merch that included rose-quartz earrings: everything is a game — everything is pure comedy.
Following his March 4 performance of the fourth single from the new record, “Total Entertainment Forever,” on “Saturday Night Live,” Tillman was the recipient of a flood of criticism for the opening line of the track: “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift / after mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes.” It was immediately taken out of the context of the song and misconstrued by lazy writers into a scenario where Tillman was “fantasizing” about sleeping with Taylor Swift. It was compared to Kanye’s line about Swift in “Famous” and was similarly lambasted for its gross sexualization of her.
The verses are similarly horrifying, but they differ in the message they are trying to communicate. Kanye’s seemed to be a deprecation of Swift’s success that placed her as a sexual object in his line of fire; but Tillman is, rather than “fantasizing,” commenting on the all-consuming technological progression that he sees as inevitable, and it’s terrifying: a future where virtual-reality technology and the sexual exploitation of non-consenting people’s likenesses meets is a nightmare we can’t wake up from.
This instance distills everything which Tillman is trying to illustrate with “Total Entertainment Forever” and, I would extrapolate, the record as a whole: the morbid social fascination with carefully—or carelessly—sourced sound-bites of information modified by faceless goons for the sole purpose of luring web-traffic. It’s a kind of willful ignorance he’s taking issue with here. At its base, it’s pure laziness on both the sides of entertainment and consumer: the entertainment industry has found the lower echelons of common denominator and pander to them with a poisonous intravenous drip (I hate using generalizations like this, but the kind of smug, indolent, uninventive, self-congratulatory reiterations coming out of Hollywood and FM radio have with few exceptions shown a plateau in entertainment production), and we complacently digest it: too comfortable, too dulled by status quo to to be challenged.
The centerpiece of the record is “Leaving LA,” a sprawling “10-verse, chorus-less diatribe” as he sings in the song, that stretches past the 13-minute mark. It’s an epic that TIllman spent three years writing and perfecting, inspired by his and his wife’s move from Los Angeles to New Orleans in 2013. It’s a song about identity and escapism, and remarks on the theme of the album — a heartbreakingly absurd comedic cosmos — when he talks about nearly choking to death on a watermelon candy in the arms of his emotionally distant mother at a JC Penney while Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” played in the background: “That’s when I first saw the comedy won’t stop for / even little boys dying in the department store.”
It’s sad and ugly, but somehow beautiful. Take the phrasing in “Ballad of the Dying Man,” where the titular character obsesses over the online entities he will no longer be able to correct and with his final breath checks his timeline to see “what he’s about to miss / and it occurs to him a little late in the game / we leave as clueless as we came / from rented heavens to the shadows in the cave / we’ll all be wrong someday.”
“Pure Comedy” has been incorrectly heralded as a reactionary, political record in the face of the presidential election, but the album written primarily in 2015 and recorded in early 2016. Which isn’t to say that it is not political — “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” examines the increased polarization and hyperbolic rhetoric of U.S. politics and ties the general societal discontent to a pervasive greed and insensitivity.
The record is preoccupied with the self-inflicted ugliness that humankind walks through, and the record’s cover illustrates this: Drawn by The New Yorker’s Ed Steed, it’s a sprawling conglomerate of cartoon debauchery, overlooked by a tranquil sky. There’s a Satanic ritual taking place, with a chalked heart instead of a pentagram; a woman lies crumpled face-down in a tar-pit, while men sit by the side reading pornographic magazines. It is grotesque and hopeless.
The opening track, for which the record is named, starts with the symphonic blare of a news program’s theme before settling into a somber piano ballad which eventually peaks into a soaring, caustic criticism of religious and political hypocrisy. It’s not at all subtle, and that’s the thing: Tillman seems disillusioned with subtlety and forgoes it without losing his acidic wit or pessimistic turns of phrase that make him such an excellent writer. In a world that he described to The Guardian as post-satirical, there is no time for subtle social criticisms. Take the much-publicized event in July 2016, just days after Donald Trump accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, when Tillman cut short his set at a New Jersey music festival, delivering an impassioned speech in which he berated the numbing qualities of entertainment and said he “always thought that it was going to look way more sophisticated than this when evil happened.”
Tillman, more so than any other artist today, understands the relationship between the didactic and entertaining elements of which art is composed, and this informs his actions to an absurd (in the context of the give-them-what-they-want faux-artistic pleasure factories) degree: and he is a walking contradiction for it. His criticism of entertainment as a black-hole of vapidity is offset by swelling arrangements and heart-aching melodies and the fact that everything he does establishes he himself as an entertainer. “Pure Comedy” is big and it is contradictory, and Tillman is simultaneously an homage and coup d’etat to the medium he has built his career on.
“Pure Comedy” is out April 7 on Sub Pop.