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Album: Father John Misty — Pure Comedy

On his disappointing third album, Father John Misty comes across as a parody of himself, offering trite social commentary and uninspired music, writes Joe Casson

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Released 7th April via Bella Union

4/10

Last month, Father John Misty’s set at BBC Radio 6 Music Festival left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I suppose it isn’t rare for the thought “Oh, he’s kind of a jerk” to cross one’s mind when considering the solo project of Josh Tillman, formerly Fleet Foxes’ drummer: he’s been popping up all over the place in the last few months to spread the good word about his new album Pure Comedy in a series of bewildering media appearances that paint the picture of a man who loves to wind people up.

It’s rarer, though, for that thought not to be immediately followed by “but his music’s brilliant“. Last month in Glasgow, his performance was plodding and on-the-nose. A stripped-back show with only an acoustic guitar and a grand piano, I was left with a frustratingly close focus on Tillman’s lyrics.

Without their interplay with the rich and bombastic musical arrangements that made his previous album, 2014’s I Love You Honeybear, so satisfying, the words came off as cranky and self-indulgent. Wait for the record, I told myself: consider the lyrics in the context of the fully-realised music that accompanies them, and you’ll surely get a more flattering impression of the new songs.

No dice. I waited patiently, and in return Pure Comedy has confirmed all of my worst misgivings. The music, though significantly more developed than his performance suggested, remains mostly uninteresting. The lyrics, meanwhile, suggest Josh Tillman has bought into the myth of his alter-ego Father John Misty as the smartest asshole in the room.

Bolstered by the success of his ruminations on romance in Honeybear, this time he’s turned his gaze outwards in a grand statement about the way we live and the world we live in. He has a lot to say, and he says it all: the album is long, seventy-four minutes in total, and half of the songs touch or wildly surpass the five-minute mark (the centrepiece ‘Leaving LA’ is thirteen minutes long).

None of that is bad in itself — I’m no stranger to the appeal of the long song or a grand, political album. But Pure Comedy does little to hold the attention that such a long album inevitably demands. The music, for one, is gorgeous and lush but ultimately dull and unvaried. With some exceptions, Pure Comedy‘s songs have a frustrating tendency to coast along aimlessly: tracks like ‘Leaving LA’ could go on for four minutes or fifteen, such is the lack of musical development, and instead seem to be drawn out by Tillman’s impulsion to say “and another thing!” and add to his polemic.

It’s certainly not all bad — ‘Total Entertainment Forever’s sparkling fanfare is a joy to listen to as well as a sarcastic advert for the hi-tech utopia Tillman is parodying, while the title track starts quiet and slowly blossoms. These songs are a distinct minority, though, and most tracks take the form of mid-tempo piano ballads.

It’s a crying shame. On Honeybear, the instrumentation was a useful sparring partner that kept Tillman’s feet on the ground: big, overblown and teetering on the tasteful side of cheesiness, it was as if the music was winking, encouraging you to to take everything Tillman said with a grain of salt. Moreover, the varied pop-song structures (weaving from baroque balladry to folk-rock and even electronic touches) forced Tillman to check his more grandiose instincts and keep his observations sharp and to-the-point, smart and sophisticated yet not lacking in instant appeal. On Pure Comedy, it’s as if Tillman has won the wrestle and has now demoted his backing to the role of a soapbox for his message.

With the music sidelined to a finely-crafted bit part, you’d expect the lyrics and Tillman’s wicked sense of humor to step up as the star of the show (see his description of mankind as “earth’s most soulful predator”, which never ceases to amuse me). But here his lyrics are largely unsatisfactory both in terms of what he’s saying and how he’s saying it.

What does The Father have to tell us about the way we live that is so urgent and groundbreaking that it warrants a wordy, seventy-four minute statement? Well, it turns out social media addiction has damaged our ability to connect with one another and society is crippled by contrived outrage.

For a man who’s no stranger to social media himself, you would have thought that at some point Tillman would have encountered one of the dime-a-dozen edgy thinkpieces which have put forward these arguments so tirelessly in the last five years or so.

For once, it looks like Father John Misty is late to the party, and Pure Comedy falters because his insights are already played out. Previously, whether you agreed with the positions Tillman has taken or not they were at least interesting to hear.

What made Honeybear so compelling, for example, was the novelty of hearing Tillman, ever the clever-clever cynic, try to process falling irrationally and uncritically in love. His songwriting was so enjoyable because it was something that only he could come up with and do justice to. The problem with what Tillman is saying on Pure Comedy is that anybody could be saying it.

Tillman’s relentlessly ironic, mocking tone is tiring and unflattering throughout, leaving you with the overwhelming impression that he is working on around five levels of self-awareness and only two of them are compelling or amusing. On one hand, there’s a good deal of what I suppose would be called satire if it wasn’t so crude: ‘Ballad of the Dying Man’ features the choice line “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath/But first checks his news feed to see what he’s about to miss”, while the bridge of ‘The Memo’ features computerised voices uttering the lines “This is totally the song of my summer” and “This guy just gets me”. Here, he comes off as heavy-handed and snide, and more than a bit ‘old man yells at cloud’.

On the other hand, songs like ‘Leaving LA’ are dotted with hints that Tillman knows exactly how he comes across: “I used to like this guy/This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die” and “That’s just what we all need/Another white guy in 2017/Who takes himself so goddamn seriously”. It’s hard to take anything he says seriously when every line feels like it could be in inverted commas, and there’s so much second-guessing that it’s easy to lose track of his point.

It often seems as if he’s trying to wind people up so that he can then turn around and say that the outrage has proved his point, placing him in the dubious linage of heavy-handed satires like South Park and Black Mirror. But if you relish creating the impression that you’re pretentious or a crank, you can’t then object to people making that criticism.

Moreover, suggesting that you’re aware you’re being pretentious or a crank doesn’t stop it from being true. If your response when people disagree with you is “you don’t understand”, perhaps you’re the one in the wrong.

All of this makes Pure Comedy a deeply disappointing listen. Josh Tillman appears to have bought fully into his own myth and has consequently bitten off more than he can chew; the mismatch between his polemical lyricism and the lush but monotonous instrumentation has left him hopelessly adrift. His sharp turn of phrase fails to cover up the fact that he’s just ranting into the void here, making uninsightful points in a tiresomely ironic manner over a bloated collection of overlong, mid-tempo piano ballads.

Josh Tillman clearly places a lot of stock in his own opinions, but it turns out he’s not as interesting as we thought. So, as he’d no doubt wish, I’ll close by offering him some of The Father’s own advice: “Try something less ambitious next time you get bored”.