Does Josh Tillman really think we’re listening to a pasty, hip-thrusting Jim Morrison lookalike for his politics? On Pure Comedy, his third LP released under the moniker Father John Misty, the solipsistic folk-rocker prophesizes for 75 minutes on mankind’s seemingly imminent demise, somehow turning universal folly into his own problem while abandoning the hooks that compensated for his crippling narcissism in the past.
Pure Comedy begins auspiciously enough with its title track, a claustrophobic slow burn in which the protagonist beholds planet Earth with a mixture of smugness and abject horror, saying of organized religion, “It’s like something that a madman would conceive!” Pianos and horns ebb and flow gloriously before dropping out, as the singer, stripped of his bluster, makes one last concession: “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.”
Therein lies Tillman’s trump card—the ability to imbue his fits of megalomania with seductive vulnerability, simultaneously playing both pop satirist and pop songsmith. Ironic or not, the indelibly Beatles-inspired “na na nas” on the chorus of “Total Entertainment Forever” almost rescue the track from its heinous opening line: “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift.” C’mon, dude, didn’t Kanye teach you not to objectify the biggest pop star on the planet for the sake of half-baked social commentary?
As Tillman reluctantly morphs from iconoclastic indie rocker and social media savant into a top-tier festival draw, fans will care less about his pseudo-intellectual statements and more about the catchiness of his tunes. That’s where Pure Comedy fails. Whereas Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear boasted lacerating wit and economic songwriting, Tillman’s latest effort doubles down on ‘70s soft-rock schmaltz, trading raucous guitars and immediate vocal hooks for sullen keys and ambient electronic flourishes. This relentlessly somber tone renders the album’s second half pedestrian at best (“A Bigger Paper Bag”) and sadistic at worst (the 10-minute “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”).
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Then there’s “Leaving LA,” a 13-minute manifesto in which Tillman croons about his disenfranchisement with Christianity and recalls nearly choking to death in a J.C. Penney as a child while Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” played on the radio. Musically, it’s a disaster: Ten monotonous verses punctuated by the occasional “oh-oh-oh,” which Tillman delivers with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Lyrically, however, it’s both self-mythologizing and self-effacing, as the singer forecasts his own career trajectory: “A little less human with each release/closing the gap between the mask and me.”
Ultimately, it’s impossible to divorce Father John Misty, the swaggering, cynical anti-rock star; from Josh Tillman, the introspective everyman who’s scared shitless at the world’s downward spiral. Pure Comedy sounds like Tillman’s attempt to take off his mask and address his fears once and for all, and nobody can disparage him for that. It’s just a shame he lost his sharpest pop instincts along the way.