Father John Misty
[Sub Pop; 2017]
Whenever I listen to Father John Misty’s 2017 release, Pure Comedy, I can’t help but think about the works of one of my all-time favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. To place Josh Tillman, the man behind FJM, on the same level as Vonnegut would be a bit hyperbolic, but Tillman’s satirical portrayal of a misguided human race is reminiscent of Vonnegut’s hopeless take of humanity.
On Pure Comedy, Tillman has no interest in trying to follow-up his commercially successful tribute to love, I Love You, Honey Bear. Pure Comedy is a bit more obtuse with its sprawling 80-minute run time of slow paced songs filled with hyper-intimate lyrics of doom and gloom. His focus throughout is on the ego of mankind, whether it be our constant need for entertainment, the obsession of self-promotion on social media, or the reliance on religion to give meaning to life. To Tillman, it all means nothing, simplifying the human condition to “a speck on a speck on a speck” on album closer “In Twenty Years or So”. He may describe earth as a “Godless rock” and boil down its people to “mammals…hell-bent on fashioning new gods”, but his nihilistic takes are all delivered with a measured blend of wit and weary.
The idea of a musician pontificating about his views on the world for over an hour may seem a bit self-indulgent, but Tillman is the first to mock himself on “Leaving LA” singing, “Another white guy in 2017 /who takes himself so goddamn seriously.” He certainly does take on the roles of judge and jury throughout the album, and his rambling diatribes would come off as bloated and self-serving if they weren’t delivered so cleverly. “Leaving LA” alone is 13:12 and is comprised of Phil Spektor orchestration, a lumbering pace, and the velvety voice of Tillman giving a sermon on everything wrong with Hollywood and pop culture as a whole. If this seems a bit overbearing, you’re right. Then again, you can’t help but chuckle at lines like “These L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands/
That sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant” and “Leave under the gaze of the billboard queens/ Five-foot chicks with parted lips selling sweatshop jeans”. These sharp quips bring levity to the overall, harrowing discourse.
What makes the grim tone of the lyrics even more unsettling is the beautifully arrangements found within each folk ballad. Tillman takes his salesman routine through various genres, ranging from gospel to country to 70s contemporary rock. If one were to block out the lyrics, they may find themselves reminded of Billy Joel, Van Morrison, or Elton John (in this Tillman’s version, the “Rocket Man” would be riding on the back of the h-bomb).
Father John Misty’s nihilistic world view isn’t new to music. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Lou Reed have all delivered similar apocalyptic imagery. What makes Tillman’s delivery on Pure Comedy so unsettling is the smooth, soulful delivery in his voice, making for some of the most unsettling easy listening you’ll ever hear. The eerie combination of Tillman’s soothing voice espousing tales of an accursed human race, one can’t help but smile and think, “So it goes.”