Father John Misty - Pure Comedy Album Review
Indie rock has long been surpassed by hip hop as the defining musical genre of the 2010s to capture the zeitgeist of American culture and push the boundaries of music sonically and conceptually. Sure, Arcade Fire won album of the year at the Grammys in 2011 and Fleet Foxes have captured the hearts of both music critics and the average Starbucks-drinking college girl, but their albums, while impressive, can’t claim to be more than past genre conventions taken to their inevitable peak on roads paved long before they ever picked up a guitar. Radio stations that once played the raw emotional and experimental sounds of Neutral Milk Hotel or Modest Mouse are happily playing The 1975 or Twenty One Pilots without any sense of how they have slowly dug a shallow grave for the genre over the last ten years.
Enter Josh Tillman in 2012 with his debut album Fear Fun under his new moniker Father John Misty. What on the surface sounded like standard indie rock held sharp critiques of what the genre had become in its lyrics. 2015’s I Love You Honeybear perfected Tillman’s style of earnest and engaging songwriting with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that both entertained and laughed at its post-modern sensibilities. Tillman blew up in a big way from I Love You Honeybear, polarizing the indie rock community into a side that hailed him as the fool the genre needed and a side that wrote him off as a farce who exploited a genre for a quick buck, even citing his writing credits for mainstream artists like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga as proof he was only in it for the cash.
On Pure Comedy, Tillman drops the irony. He drops the veiled wit and sarcasm for sincere self-reflection and honest confessions that he has no clue how to fix what modern America has become. This is most prevalent on “Leaving LA” which features one of the greatest acts of self-deconstruction ever put to song. Tillman muses that he began to write music as Father John Misty to offer a mirror to society on how ridiculous hipster and indie culture had become, only for the irony to be lost and his persona to be raised up as sincerity. On the same track, he predicts that when these fans hear Pure Comedy and his actual sincere perspective, they’ll “jump ship,” and that it will be so melancholic that it will make them want to die.
The album’s lyrical content doesn’t fall short of this promise. Dystopian and apocalyptic scenes can be found across a handful of tracks, and a handful more serve as Marxist critiques of capitalism and popular culture in modern America. One is even penned as an argument with God on human suffering. It’s these tracks where Tillman struggles with the issues brought up on “Total Entertainment Forever” the most. Tillman wants to create an artful expression of himself and the problems he sees in modern America, but knows he can’t get many people to listen to it without making it entertaining, which could cause the message to be easily lost.
Tillman tackles this issue ingeniously by adapting his sound to the piano rock stylings of Elton John. It’s the kind of music put on at the end of the day to unwind in the 1970s, and in these ballads is where Tillman sneaks in his honest deconstructions of modern America. It’s akin to a modern take on John Lennon’s 1970 album Plastic Ono Band. Tillman has covered the song “God” from it before with passion that few performers are able muster for a Lennon song, and now Tillman has crafted his own album that serves as a needed spiritual successor to Lennon’s seminal work.
Tillman has been criticized by some for seemingly flaunting his intelligence on the record, with the indie rock blowhards who claimed he was a shallow artist now claiming Tillman’s sincerity on Pure Comedy is nothing more than sophistry and casuistry. It’s as if Tillman is supposed to provide answers for human strife that all the artists and writers before him have been tackling for thousands of years to no avail. Tillman instead knows his strength is in holding the problems up to a microscope to point out where the true issues lie. He exposes the facade of fake conflicts between liberals and conservatives as illustrated on “Two Wildly Different Perspectives,” and explores organized religion’s inability to provide answers in a complex society as illustrated on the album’s titular track “Pure Comedy.” Pure Comedy provides insight and perspective for the listener to begin to find their own personal solutions and understanding to these problems rather than Tillman preaching what he knows he can never truly prove through his music.
There are some facets to the album’s construction that hold it back from a perfect listen during its ambitious 74 minute run time. “Smoochie” feels out of place subject wise, sounding like a leftover B-side from I Love You Honeybear. The album's instrumentation, while overall fitting for the album’s desired purpose, plays second fiddle to the lyrics and don’t contain many memorable moments that demand to be returned to outside of the spacey endings to “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” and “In Twenty Years or So.”
But the album doesn’t feel like Tillman is trying to construct some 10/10 landmark progressive album. Instead, it feels like an album that’s meant to serve as a wakeup call to the American music listeners of 2017 that modern America isn’t a time to be celebrating simple entertainment. It’s a call to stop ignoring the serious problems of American society, while simultaneously deconstructing the purpose that the singer/songwriter plays in overcoming these issues of modern society. It’s Tillman’s most ambitious record to date, and he succeeds in a way few other indie rock artists could, or even would, attempt.
Chandler Copenheaver is a junior majoring in Public Relations and minoring in Civic and Community Engagement. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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