My friend Billy Brooks has an interesting idea about Bob Dylan’s music – particularly the earlier, sixties stuff. He reckons the actual music isn’t up to that much – that the lyrics are the real attraction, and the sound behind them is purely a distracting and convenient means of consumption. In many ways I agree with him – the band used for Highway 61 Revisited are frequently out of time; the fatigued, one-shot take-it-or-leave-it sessions for Another Side… yielded recordings with inconsistent, mistake-laden chord progressions. Father John Misty’s third album, Pure Comedy, is then, in many ways, Dylan-esque. I posit that you’re unlikely to hear anything as lyrically stimulating at this for some time – certainly for the rest of 2017 at least. And yet musically, the constructions here are just evolved versions of the last record’s weaker joints… right?
Well, let’s take a glance over our shoulders for a moment. 2012 – J. Tillman abandons his solo career in folk and to pursue larger fame under the evangelist pseudonym Father John Misty, a shit-talking, Nuevo Jesus character with a penchant for dry banter and razor-sharp social commentary. His first album, Fear Fun, makes ripples with its sarky jibes at junkie bohemian novelists and teenage cemetery fetishists. 2015, and FJM’s second album, I Love You, Honeybear, is the comparative tsunami, driven by an enfettered dogma that deals in everything from hyperbolic paramour to snide assessment on friendships and politics; from terminal boredom at the bar to sexual becoming in the supermarket. In the meantime, Tillman develops his personality offstage into a maelstrom of ferociously insincere idiosyncrasy – his Instagram defiles stock images with fictional attributions of personal attachment; his Facebook plays host to elaborate essays on musical censorship and connected cover versions that lampoon Ryan Adams, worship Taylor Swift, and nod at the Velvet Underground (complete with comments from the late Lou Reed, who appears in Tillman’s dreams, decrying the tributes – “Delete those tracks, don’t summon the dead, I am not your plaything.”)
Pure Comedy represents a very natural evolution of the Father John Misty presented to us on I Love You, Honeybear – in every sense. The honeymoon is over and our enamoured lover is now a jaded cynic. And, as the shift between Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings and Bored in the USA proved before, the pop sensibilities are fading (of his three FJM records, this is Tillman’s slowest, longest and most musically complex). On album #2, these slower moments (e.g. Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow) felt a fraction clumsier than the rounder, faux-pop compositions like Holy Shit – here, they’re all there is. That’s not bad per se, but there’s a lot more awkward bending of lyrics to fit the bar than there are moments even slight anthem. The lyrics have also matured – now it seems, the artist is far more interested in making you think than he is in making you laugh. For this reason, you may find as I did, that your first listen situates you in the audience of a far less immediate record – this genuinely is an occasion where you ought sit down in a winged armchair for the seventy-five minute runtime, lyric-sheet on your lap and a glass of bourbon on your side-table.
Everything here is pretty clever. Nothing is bad – and, to be honest, nothing is disappointing either. Admittedly, you’re unlikely to be left humming any of these songs’ parts as you did the lead melody on The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apt.; and there’s not a song in earshot that would sound half as good on the radio as, say, Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins). But, there’s a hell of a lot to digest and it’s really, really thought-provoking stuff. From track to track, there’s a new angle on the current state of affairs, reverently fucked as it is. And, just like our beloved contemporary chaos, Tillman is as skitter – on track one, Tillman tackles the miserable, dramatic irony of reproduction; one song later, he’s got Kanye West in a half-nelson using only three words, and product placement for the Oculus Rift in the successive line. Elsewhere, the Desolation Row-style sprawl of Leaving LA tours the listener through thirteen-minutes of post-apocalyptic Hollywood, while the gentle Birdie offers a strange, bigoted discourse between man and voiceless, avian dinosaur (“you may be up in the sky but our paradigms are just as deep and just as wide”). As ever, Tillman’s references are also golden – “Narcissus would’ve had a field day,” he moans on The Memo; “you didn’t leave a whole lot for me,” he accuses Christ on When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay. Phenomenal production too – a warm, gently hissing master-job by industry veteran Bob Ludwig, the mix is decorated with surprises (note the computer-voiced social media comments sprinkled throughout The Memo, and the spasmodic flickers of synthesiser on Two Wildly Different Perspectives).
There you have it then. Pure Comedy. Perhaps more a literary event than a triumph of indie rock, but an event nonetheless. I urge you to listen to this record. As Tillman himself admitted on a recently broadcast live performance for BBC Radio 2, it’s “the whitest, most acoustic thing you’ve ever [heard]” – but it’s really rather good.
Picks:Pure Comedy, Total Entertainment Forever, Leaving LA, The Memo