“I think most peoples’ idea of authenticity is pork pie hats and vests and banjos and whatever else, but real authenticity is just empathy, because everyone views their own experiences as being the golden standard for authenticity. If you can empathize with people and make them feel like what you’re talking about is somehow reflective of their own experiences, then you’ve won their vanity, and thus achieved authenticity.”
This is a quote from Father John Misty’s episode of Pitchfork’s Over/Under series, a series Josh Tillman jokingly referred to as a “twisted game” as he and his wife were asked to rate such concepts as self-control, marriage, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This was Tillman’s explanation of “authenticity,” and though he never formally “rates” the concept, his answer may outline the biggest problem with Pure Comedy, his third album under the FJM moniker. It’s not necessarily Tillman’s polarizing personality (or character, as some call it). It’s not the album’s excessive 74-minute runtime, or even its questionable sequencing.
Put simply, it’s hard to empathize with someone who’s talking down to you.
While Tillman’s opus, 2015’s I Love You Honeybear, attempted to unravel his personal and romantic life by way of introversion, on Pure Comedy, he seems satisfied with pointing the finger at anyone but himself. He blames a culture that values entertainment over art for the Trump Administration, conservatives for normalizing hatred and bigotry and liberals for appropriating the term “progress.” In fact, there’s hardly a vulnerable moment on the album until “Leaving L.A.,” a 14-minute centerpiece that begins with the usual snark (“These L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands/Just sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant”), brushes over the disappointment and death of his father and ends with an allegory about a near-death experience Tillman had as a boy in a J.C. Penney store as Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” played over the store’s speakers.
If this all sounds a bit exhausting, well, it is. But it’s also an integral piece of Pure Comedy, a song that should never be skipped in context of the album. In fact, it might just be the most genuine song Tillman has ever written.
The rest of Pure Comedy’s lyrical content is no less dense. During several songs, he references a dystopian future when politics no longer matter and humans have returned to some sort of hunter-gatherer state. The is “the comedy,” the irony that we rely so much upon technology and social currency that eventually, it destroys us and ultimately sets the clock back to zero. Was that the plot to Fight Club? I think that was the plot to Fight Club. These concepts are not new, making Tillman’s condescension even more souring and his recent vitriolic takedown of pop music even more ironic considering what he owes to those who came before him.
Ultimately, his message isn’t different; he just chooses to say it in decidedly more, and larger, words.
He (or perhaps more accurately, his brand) also thrives on pop-culture. “Father John Misty Sings About VR Sex With Taylor Swift,” read headlines meant to make readers either chuckle or roll their eyes, as long as they’re pressing play all the same. The lyric in question (“Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift/After Mister and the Missus finish dinner and the dishes”) comes from “Total Entertainment Forever,” an earworm that brims with upbeat acoustic guitar and a full horn section. Later, on “Ballad of the Dying Man,” he sings about a man checking his newsfeed one last time upon his deathbed. “So says the Dying Man once I’m in the box, ‘Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok/And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked/The homophobes, hipsters and one percent’/The false feminists he’d managed to detect/Who will critique them once he’s left?,” Tillman croons in one of his wittier moments.
These are all reasons to loathe, or love, Father John Misty. And yet, it would be disingenuous to ignore the other side of Pure Comedy – its beauty.
Sonically, the piano is front and center here, often surrounded by meticulous orchestration. A symphony accompanies the album’s unflinching title track, matching Tillman’s energy as he compares our current culture to “something that a madman would conceive.” Later, the piano plays a key role in “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” an early album standout that substitutes choruses for simplistic verses that detail life after some kind of economic upheaval. The album juxtaposes its organic instrumentation with a number of synthetic sounds, from the glitchy field recordings that kick off the album to the warbling synth of “A Bigger Paper Bag.” While Tillman appears to have been influenced by Elton John and Billy Joel this time around, these soundbites often lend to Pure Comedy’s experimental, Beatles-esque moments. Even “Birdie,” a song that nearly halts all of the momentum of the album’s first half, benefits from a massive, cinematic swell during its bridge.
If you managed to stomach (or perhaps even enjoy) the lyrical content discussed up to this point, you’ll be relieved to hear that Tillman once again becomes self-reflective on Pure Comedy’s breathtaking penultimate and closing tracks, “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” and “In Twenty Years or So” (respectively). The former is the album’s second 10+ minute ballad, a soundscape that builds upon layers of shimmering synth while the latter is a simple acoustic number that bookends Pure Comedy with the album’s most stunning, dizzying use of strings.
So perhaps the reason Josh Tillman never “rated” authenticity is because Father John Misty never claimed to be “authentic.” The debate about his personality/character rages on, but at this point, with all the talk about entertainment vs. art during the album’s rollout, it seems clear that the moniker is not simply a lark for Tillman (even if he rides for Nickelback). Pure Comedy is a gorgeous album, an album that will remain important in the context of Tillman’s career, but above all things, it’s a genuine album. Sometimes, it’s hard to empathize with someone who refuses to tell you what you want to hear – especially if what they’re saying is true.