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Album Review: Father John Misty ‘Pure Comedy’

You know that one Facebook friend who thinks regularly posting paragraph-long statuses pontificating on all the world’s wretchedness will absolve them from any hand they had in said wretchedness? This friend is the character Father John Misty a.k.a. Josh Tillman has adapted for his third studio album ‘Pure Comedy’, an album for all the people hoping to save the world, but only by way of saving themselves.

Tillman takes all of 74 minutes to thoroughly criticise a litany of societal problems from the safety of his recording studio. What saves this album from becoming pure self-indulgence is the meta-ness sporadically sprinkled throughout. Like many of us, Tillman is a bit of a pretentious wanker but at least he has the self-awareness to be embarrassed.

Title track Pure Comedy eases us into Tillman’s searing pool of wokeness. It’s a building cacophony of humanity’s every wrong turn since inception, Tillman playing the removed observer. Urgent horn runs accompany his list of every chest-tightening human challenge, and as the last lyric rolls round he finally references the collective “we”, instilling hope and community to an album which is otherwise naught but open-ended questions.

The powerful horns are muted for 75% of the album, replaced with soulful piano ballads and string quartets. The standouts of this form are Ballad of A Dying Man (whose alt title could easily have been Ode to A Reddit Troll) and Things That Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution. They each approach mortality in different ways – the first from an individual, the second a societal perspective.

Ballad of A Dying Man self-righteously ribs the unwavering delight divulged from giving our two cents online. Tillman sarcastically points out the simplicity of life and death behind a glowing screen without ever having to acknowledge its inherent pointlessness. A gospel chorus climax contrasts pleasantly with Tillman’s crystal clear falsetto, its beauty somewhat dulling the sting of his sharp callout.

….Revolution plays out the apocalypse many have been awaiting ever since the world got a bit more heated. Muted trumpets and solemn strings transition into brassy horn ensembles and fuzzy feedback as our protagonist comes to realise that the death of modern society wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of human confusion.

Two tracks have whipped up a little controversy for ‘Pure Comedy’, the first being Leaving LA, a 13-minute lament which debuted in its fetal form after Tillman’s mini breakdown at a 2016 New Jersey music festival. Any 13-minute song seems bound to grow tired, especially one with the sparse instrumentation of Leaving LA, but Tillman’s meta lyrical story makes hanging on worthwhile. It takes a talented songwriter to have one cutting pull back per song but for Tillman to have managed several encapsulates the push-pull that exists within him. Just when you think he’s gone off the deep end, he pulls you back into the joke, laughing heartily at your shocked face.

Total Entertainment Forever is Tillman’s other controversial tune. Its opening lyric “Bedding Taylor Swift/every night inside the ocular rift” was misinterpreted as a chauvinistic lunge at a fragile, white woman. Rather, it’s a line that encapsulated the themes of technology and celebrity omnipresence that hang over the whole album. Poppy bongos and jazzy horns make Total Entertainment Forever the most jovial of the lot, juxtaposed with the horror future that Tillman gallantly spits. In a time where all aspects of society have been repackaged into entertainment, there is no stanza more relevant than Tillman’s quiet revelation about constant distraction,  its both our ultimate gift and our imminent downfall.

‘Pure Comedy’ is chocked full of such tongue-in-cheek commentary that it’s hard to decipher the sincerity, if there is any. And that’s the point – art reflects life, and life in this moment is confusing. In the last line of final track In Twenty Years Or So… Tillman croons that there’s nothing to be afraid of, and although his voice is calm and comforting, it seems he’s trying to convince himself as much as he is everyone else.

Album Rating: 4