With a singing voice at times simultaneously reminiscent of James Taylor and a young Elton John, and self-referential lyrics that take frequent stabs at the absurdity of society, Pure Comedy, Josh Tillman’s third full-length album under the Father John Misty moniker has arrived. At a running time of just over seventy-four minutes, the thirteen thoughtful, darkly satirical tracks that have found their way onto this orchestral folk rock epic make it a front-runner for the densest philosophical diatribe put to music you’ll come across this year. In other words, there’s a lot to unpack here.
Listeners believing they’ll be hearing an album filled with happy horns and ironic lyrics similar to those on the album’s single “Total Entertainment Forever” may be disappointed. In fact, every one of the other twelve songs on Pure Comedy find Tillman working in a decidedly slower groove. Whether it’s the barroom balladry of tracks like “A Bigger Paper Bag” and “Smoochie” or the languorously stoned, Beatles-esque “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” Tillman uses every downtempo opportunity to relate his feelings on the state of the world, inserting first-person life experiences (both real and imagined) to help flesh-out his bleak point of view. In Tillman’s world, life is a “horror show,” humans are referred to as “godless animals” and “demented monkeys” who exist on a “godless rock that refuses to die.”
Is there any light to be found in Tillman’s lyrics? Some. The thirteen-plus minute “Leaving LA” finds Tillman at times charmingly self-deprecating, like when he quotes a friend who refers to him as, “Another white guy in 2017, who takes himself so goddamn seriously.” Or on the same track when Josh goes so far as to lightheartedly reference the song he’s in the middle of singing with the lines, “Some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe, plays as they all jump ship, I used to like this guy, but this new shit makes me want to die.” Moments like these make it hard to hate Father John Misty.
The 18th century British politician Horace Walpole once wrote, “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.” If given only these choices, it may seem obvious which side Tillman falls on, but don’t be so quick to dismiss Pure Comedy solely as a collection of clever doomsday whingings filtered through a sly sense of humor. Yes, Pure Comedy is at times frighteningly gloomy and tragically comic, but it’s also sweet and gentle and, perhaps most remarkably, touchingly beautiful from beginning to end.