Monday, April 10, 2017

album review: 'pure comedy' by father john misty

I think there were a lot of people surprised by I Love You, Honeybear.

Hell, I was surprised. I had liked Josh Tillman's debut Fear Fun under the Father John Misty moniker, but his 2015 followup was in a different ballpark of quality. Huge, lush production, a knack for incredibly sticky melodies, and a narrative throughline that was as witty and twisted as it was genuine and heartfelt. I'll wholeheartedly admit the record's warped yet self-aware framing did require a certain headspace to appreciate - especially considering the romantic relationship that was being explored in plenty of lurid detail - but it connected for me, and it was very nearly my favourite record of that year.

But then comes the bigger question: how the hell do you follow that? The grand romance of I Love You, Honeybear was so well-structured, a self-contained masterpiece... and while Father John Misty had flirted with social commentary on the record I was a little unsure how well it could connect on a whole album, which was what Pure Comedy reportedly had. Let's get real: even if Father John Misty's insight proved valid, I could see a lot of people dismissing it because of both the delivery and the messenger himself, especially if it threw in elements of self-aware satire. It's a fine line to trace, and while I was reasonably confident he could pull it off, I was tempering my expectations going into Pure Comedy - so did Josh Tillman pull it off?

Well, it's tough to say - but that's more because Tillman set out to make a very different record than what I Love You, Honeybear was, one that I'm almost certain will alienate a lot of his newfound audience that hopped on board on the last record. And let's make two things very clear: Tillman knows exactly what he's doing in trying to push back the audience here for the spectacle and who doesn't really get it; and that the content as it is really doesn't bother me - I've heard and covered far more twisted stories this year. And yet this might be one of the cases where Tillman succeeded more than he otherwise intended, because I can't say I like this nearly as much as I did I Love You, Honeybear - don't get me wrong, it's still great, but it's also more bloated, directionless, and lacking the focus that made his last album so potent, from the content to especially the production and delivery.

So let's start with the delivery, because this is where there is arguably the biggest shift in comparison with the last record. Oh, not with Josh Tillman himself - his voice is still liquid and capable of incredible emotive charisma from his deeper sardonic baritone to a quivering but clear falsetto. He's not as bombastic this time around, and while only the title track mirrors some of the explosive intensity in his delivery that would show up on songs like 'The Ideal Husband' two years ago, he's aiming to downplay significantly here, rely on subtle hints of reverb to draw out the lonely musings that run across this record. And I'd argue 'musing' is the best word here, because while Tillman has always played a little fast and loose with song structure, Pure Comedy is going to take its sweet time across nearly a full album of ballads to really tease out the philosophical ideas Tillman wants to explore. And let me establish this now: the reason I'd argue this record feels longer than it probably should is because it keeps an low, understated tone for the majority of its runtime, comfortably lodged in the mid-70s AM rock singer-songwriter tones that I might like, but can start to run together if you're not paying attention to the details. Granted, how much some of those details might work for you is also an open question, because while they might be better integrated than when they were on 'True Affection', the subtle hints of electronics are back, sometimes coming through in slightly stiffer beats, sometimes through a pitch-shifted backing vocal layer on 'Smoochie', sometimes through thicker hints of distortion or warped, reversed samples on 'Things That Might Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution' or 'Birdie', or in the most striking case, the bridge of 'The Memo', where Tillman uses it to make a stark, post-modernist point about gentrification that hit home a lot more effectively than I expected. 

And yet, while there are lush musical elements that still come through like the horns on the title track, the acoustic piano bar bounce of 'Total Entertainment Forever', the subtle hints of a firmer bass on 'Ballad Of The Dying Man', the gorgeous swells of strings on the album centerpiece 'Leaving LA' and later on 'Two Wildly Different Perspectives', the slightly hollow and unstable elegance of 'A Bigger Paper Bag', and the touches of ethereal gospel vocals around 'When The God Of Love Returns There'll Be Hell To Pay', it's impossible not to notice that there is less momentum and structure to these songs overall, a more barren experience that intentionally draws more focus on the words. Which sure, that can work for a certain style of socially aware message, but if I circle back to my general qualifiers for strong political art, it can't help but cut into any sense of deeper populism - most people aren't going to have the patience to listen through a twelve minute broadside fired against Los Angeles that mutates into a discussion of the modern music scene and Josh Tillman's role in all of it. Sure, I might love it - 'Leaving LA' is a tremendous work and ends on a beautifully open note that's one of the most personal and effective cuts on the entire record - but I'm a critic who has no qualms listening to songs at this length, and doing it with self-awareness doesn't mean you're not still doing it. And while I know Tillman is doing this in order to refine his own artistic message - one that for the most part I agree with - at the same time by sacrificing the tightness of his melodies and song structures he necessarily cuts down on the people who'll be willing and able to receive that message, and that's a mixed blessing indeed.

So what is that grand message that Father John Misty is looking to explore? Well, again, this is where I'm going to question how much dramatic impact this record will have overall, because it is nowhere near as self-contained as I Love You, Honeybear was - sure, that record had its digressions, but they were essential for highlighting the self-awareness and yet real earnestness in his delivery - sarcasm and artifice subverted with humor and real ideals. But here, it's hard not to feel that Tillman is aiming much more broadly, targeting on the very first track showing humanity's genesis, blind adherence towards faith and religion, the obsession with those who do not believe - critical to understanding this record, we'll come back to this - and indeed how we're all so insignificant in the end in the vastness of space. One could very easily make the assertion that it's a profoundly nihilistic work - we're all so pitiful in the grand scheme of things in the eyes of any higher power that the most we can do is understand and accept our worst natures - but Tillman's a smarter guy than that and his exploration of faith and religion is easily some of the most compelling stuff here, especially tempered with the knowledge that he's very easily including himself in the same picture. Take 'Ballad Of The Dying Man', which tells the story of an older fellow who believes his views are vital to the world and now on his deathbed bitterly wishes he could rail against those he despised one last time - when in reality it's an open question how much he really knew, and that said dying man could very well be Tillman himself. And while he might have some of his more brazen segments scorning corrupt or broken systems to which he wants nothing to do with - 'Leaving LA', in between the lines on 'Birdie' which makes some coy references to Twitter I found a nice touch, especially on 'The Memo' - he seems a lot more sympathetic or at least willing to observe that other and find common ground, like on 'Two Wildly Different Perspectives' between left and right, or on 'When The God Of Love Returns There'll Be Hell To Pay', which places him taking God of a tour of the world at the apocalypse and showing despite the deep rift between a distant higher power and humankind, they still share so much in common in hoping for more out of us. Then there's 'Things That Might Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution', which isn't so much a skewering of social activism or anarchism on the left so much as a warning to consider the consequences and the reality that said capitalist systems serve a purpose and provide conveniences many are ignoring except when lost.

Of course, all of this does tend to be a lot less funny or crass than much of the antics or subtle jibes on I Love You Honeybear, and it's also hard not to notice that Tillman has the flexibility and options for that sort of balanced consideration because the system has rewarded him - which, of course, he knows and makes a point to reference and skewer his own hypocrisy here on 'Leaving LA'. But really, he tipped his hand a few songs earlier on 'Ballad Of The Dying Man': he's not the leader of any revolution despite his statements, and the inclusion of songs highlighting his own flailing and struggles with alcohol on 'A Bigger Paper Bag' and the frankly overlong 'So I'm Growing Old On Magic Mountain' makes it clear he never wanted that responsibility and is the wrong person to shoulder it. Because at the end of the day, we are the furthest thing from the center of the universe and it could all end and there'd be nothing we could do to stop or face it... and yet he looks at his wife as their next round arrives and 'This Must Be The Place' by The Talking Heads comes on at the bar, and he knows that while he'll laugh at the cosmic accident and miracle of our bumbling existence, he'll cherish it all the same - accepting your part in the joke, and then laughing to keep on living.

I think a lot of people are going to dismiss this project - it's bloated, it's rambling, it gets into controversial territory that's baiting an audience that will undoubtedly rise to it, and it's entirely up its own post-modernist ass - and it knows it. And while I do think the songs aren't quite as individually sharp to bring more people in on the joke - which I think would help its overall appeal - I do think it's a joke worth telling, and hearing. For me, a strong 8/10 and certainly a recommendation. I do like I Love You, Honeybear more, but I can see those who get this record finding it more resonant in the bigger picture. As it is, it's the sort of sharp, witty, self-deprecating and yet painfully honest singer-songwriter record that deserves a lot of attention, so definitely check it out.

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