It’s not very often an artist will come along, seemingly out of the blue, and cause such a storm the way Josh Tillman has in recent years. The former Fleet Foxes drummer, now going under the alias Father John Misty, has made waves in the world of music with his lavishly arranged ballads and socio-politically aware lyricism. Tillman has a string of solo releases under his belt including 2015’s, I Love You, Honeybear, a heartfelt ode to his wife Emma, and since the beginning of this year has been teasing fans with singles from his hot off the press third record, Pure Comedy.
After being completely won over by Tillman’s lyrics on Honeybear, touching on themes of romance, existential questioning and the state of western capitalist society, I had been anticipating Pure Comedy for months to see what direction he’d take next in his song writing. I Love You, Honeybear had been such a departure thematically and sonically from his lo-fi grassroots debut, Fear Fun. So much so that I felt fairly apprehensive in the run up to Pure Comedy, my biggest fear to be disappointed by a songwriter who I felt was such a breath of fresh air due to his conscious and occasionally controversial writing. After hearing the lead single, opener and title track from the album, Pure Comedy, I knew that not only was Josh back in traditional Father John Misty style, but that this album that had the potential to prove Tillman to be leaps and bounds ahead of his contemporaries.
A six and a half minute piano ballad kicks off the record as it means to go on, throwback 70’s instrumentation that harks back to that golden era sound of early Billy Joel, the title track deals with human nature, maternal instincts as well as the frivolity of religion and peoples inflated opinions on almost anything and everything in the twenty first century through the eyes of Father John. All beautifully strung together with Josh’s trademark poetic charm and cynicism. “Total Entertainment Forever” is Tillman on top form as he observes the slow isolation and social deterioration of today’s consuming public, as we have become so engrossed in social media and the immediate world that conveniently fits in our pockets. His poeticism and lyrical mastery never ceases to amaze me but the closing line just couldn’t have been more fitting for the song, “A frozen smile on every face, as the stories replay, this must have been a wonderful place”. Tillman having the capability to base a song around the irony and cruel realisation that social media is a warped reality we choose for ourselves proves his prowess as one of the greatest social commentators and songwriters of our time.
Throughout the record, Tillman’s contemplation and consideration of all walks of life become more and more apparent, this time around all of his energy has been focused into expressing his rather mixed views of the human race, rather than that of the one person he cares for most, across an entire collection of songs on Honeybear. At this point in his career it’s becoming more and more clear that Father John Misty as a writer feels drawn to basing each of his artistic ventures on one specific theme, which may act as a constraint for a lot of songwriters but Josh’s talents at effortlessly varying a single topic make this a huge strength of his in my books.
The most emotionally invested and vulnerable Tillman allows himself to be on Pure Comedy comes in the form of “Leaving LA”. A thirteen minute long epic, the bittersweet letter to the city he lived in describes his love/hate relationship with Los Angeles. The stereotypical shallow personas that it has historically been recognised for are present in lines like “These L.A phonies and their bullshit bands, that sound like dollar bills and Amy Grant” and “You can hear it all over the airwaves, the manufactured gasp of the final days”. He manages to delve into his own past in the track, describing a traumatic near-death experience with his mother as well as being extremely self-reflective over his role as a musician and how it impacts his significance in the world.
On tracks like “Ballad of the Dying Man” and “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” Father John Misty continues to lay bare his unrest and frustration with the ignorant and deluded world we live in, but manages to mould his very potent opinions into beautifully orchestrated anthems. Pure Comedy is an album that is in short, an eye-opener for the modern man. It is a perfect example of what Josh Tillman is capable of doing best, accurately documenting the confusing and ever-changing world we live in, yet somehow perfectly within the confines of a three to five minute pop song.
The record takes the most celebrated and loved ingredients of Elton Johns “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and Neil Young’s “Harvest” with a hint of the emotional intensity of Conor Oberst, and creates something I believe will be unparalleled to anything else that is released in 2017. Yet I feel by making these comparisons I almost undermine Pure Comedy for what it really is, an album that is emotive, lavish, filled with infectious hooks and above all else, a scarily accurate sign of the times. It stands tall as a benchmark for singer/songwriters in the post 00’s political and social climate and truly is Father John Misty’s masterpiece.
–Words by Gavin Owen