Pure Comedy – what can we say about Pure Comedy? The opening lines put us right there: “the comedy of man starts like this/ Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips.” The pain of human birth leading to the need for a family unit, creating childhood, a time where most of us find, later in life, we all got a little bit messed up. Basically, Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman, has made a concept album about the absurdity of human existence and it's pretty damned good. As he travels swiftly from the difficulties of childbirth to the invention of religion and all the problems that has caused, it would be easy to write an essay about the song on its own. In fact Tillman released his own pseudo-intellectual rant-come-essay as a companion to the album, and it’s quite an irritating read, he’s deviously telling you what to think and taking the piss out of you at the same time. So when the Americana ballads spill out of the speakers it may come as a surprise if your only primer for the album is Tillman’s essay, or one of his incendiary interviews – he’s been upsetting a lot of people – so it’s worth considering a little of the background leading up to this release.
Not so long ago those who'd heard of Josh probably knew him as the drummer in Fleet Foxes, during that folk band’s surprisingly rapid rise to fame. Meanwhile in the background, ‘J. Tillman’ had been plugging away at being that quintessentially downhearted and obscure singer-songwriter who nobody's ever heard of. Confessional, introspective and bleak – he eventually got bored of himself, realising that at his shows people’s eyes glazed over as he poured his heart out and lit up as he quipped between songs. It was time for a rethink, and so Father John Misty was born. A character, who is not a character, really, so much as a vehicle for Tillman to transform into himself. I find it odd that folks seem to struggle with this idea so much – in a culture that's already witnessed the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust, whose death allowed David Bowie to rise from the ashes like a phoenix, more than the mortal man he'd been before he brought the Starman into being. But then it's easy to forget, or not realise as you were probably not even there at the time, that Ziggy was not universally accepted upon arrival. It was his very deviance from the norm that made him so irresistible – a terror to the old and a hero to the young.
Father John Misty has learnt his lessons from the likes Ziggy, but also from the likes of more modern publicity masters like Steve Bannon and Aaron Banks. The media guys who, by raising folks like Trump and Farage to ridiculous heights, have shown us just how much the world loves an arsehole. It was never truer than today, for the public fervour for outrage is at its most potent in decades. We live for controversy. Notoriety is the new respect. Just look at the opening couplet on 'Total Entertainment Forever': “Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift”. It's pure click bait: a megastar, tech, and misogyny combined in a knowing fistful of modernity that’s hard to resist. Maybe we’re annoyed that he’s reducing our beloved Tay Tay into a mere sex object, maybe we’re eager to hear about an imagined near future where 3D virtual reality is domestic, commonplace and seedy – either way we are intrigued and we want to know where he’s going to take it from here.
Of course, besides being a column-inch generator Father John Misty is, in fact, a musician and composer of great quality. It’s not just a good story that Lady Gaga and Beyonce have come to Tillman to work on songs for their own records, the man is a talent and, lyrical content aside, this is a beautiful record which you could allow to wash over you peacefully, if you could only switch off your brain. And it’s on this point that Pure Comedy is inarguably a triumph, more so than his previous two Father John Misty records, it sounds great: polished, cohesive, complete. The songs are so multi-layered with hooks that I find my ear-worm brain wandering from one potential influence to another, from all over the place. There’s bits of ‘Pure Comedy’ that make me think of a Pavement song and the verses are highly reminiscent of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Without You’, to my ears. I get The Beach Boys, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, The Band, even Fleet Foxes themselves, and all that Americana folk has to offer, but also at times I might find myself led to Culture Club, or some other incongruous pop reference. I’m not calling Tillman a plagiarist, far from it. I think he’s more of a musical magpie, collecting ingredients from all over pop’s glorious spectrum to sprinkle into his melting pot. It’s worth remembering, if you count all the records released under ‘J. Tillman’, this is the eleventh studio album he’s fronted, and it shows.
A comedian friend once told me that the trick to good comedy is to stop trying to be funny. I suspect this is one of the reasons Tillman bristles so much when journalists try and dig out some confirmation that Father John Misty is a character and not simply himself. As he sings in ‘A Bigger Paper Bag’: “Okay, you be my mirror/but remember that there are only a few angles I tend to prefer.” He’s as aware of the vanity of what he’s doing as he is of the fact that, as consumers of entertainment, we are more interested in buying stories than art. He’s created a character who gives him an excuse to be more like himself, crafted a narrative voice who can expose those dark internal thoughts we all have, unashamedly. In the age of South Park and Black Mirror all of this tragedy, this horror at modern life and base desires, provokes a smirk and a giggle – but that is our own awkward recognition at the truth of it all. The irony is that Tillman has come full circle, it has taken him a couple of albums, but now on this gorgeously produced album of ballads, he’s become a notable singer-songwriter baring his soul. Those lyrics are a minefield of meta, but at the heart of it it’s the same guy and, I suspect, he’s telling us his truth.