Father John Misty
, April 7th, 2017 11:24
Like a magician showing you the cards up his sleeve, Josh Tillman wants to wow you with the fact that he’s pulling off a trick as much as he wants to wow you with the trick itself. Hell, Josh Tillman wants to wow you by rolling his eyes at other magicians even as pulls a rabbit from his hat. The music itself is florid, the satire is incisive, and yet the one is constantly undercutting the other – and intentionally, while he flashes a smile.
He’s making art that mocks you, that mocks Father John Misty, that mocks Josh Tillman, that mocks itself, that mocks the entire world! But that music also needs to be beautiful and poignant to make any of that land. One false move and the cards all rattle out of his sleeve. Put everything together, and he pulls off an amazing trick. But by the end of Pure Comedy, his third as FJM, it seems he definitely has your card, though neither the fact nor the reveal feel all that surprising.
After working under his own name as a solo artist and as the drummer for Fleet Foxes, Tillman created the Father John Misty Experience as a grandiose heading from which he could finagle. It’s not an alter ego or an alternate persona, but Tillman full bore, erecting a pole from which he can wave the bombastic flag of his take on the world. He is undoubtedly aware that his satire will piss some people off, and even seems to relish that fact, both within and outside of his music. He has an impish streak akin to Tyler the Creator; the two share a joy in stirring shit up in order to point and say, “Hey, there’s shit over here.” Whether covering Ryan Adams’ covers of Taylor Swift or taking the music offline and claiming the ghost of Lou Reed told him to, Misty is fiddling on a level of performance at every step. He’s performing in the grandest sense, whether sashaying across a stage in a choreographed slinky-slime dance or pulling a deadpan soap opera pose, all in the hope of reminding everyone that we’re performing our own meaningless magic tricks day in and day out.
When Tillman brought a player piano, his own laugh track, and his soaring voice to The Late Show with David Letterman for I Love You Honeybear’s ‘Bored in the USA’, the surprise felt earned. That album paired its biting words with genuine warmth and love, inspired by his recent marriage and the dark well it drew him out of. The intersections of warm and cold, laughter and sighing, beauty and fragility were all personal and close to the vest, even when looking outwards. On Pure Comedy, the balance gets tipped entirely, the contents squelching out like sour milk. Instead he puts on his distressed bathrobe to take an indignant look around at the current political and societal surroundings. “All this scepticism and cynicism that I have felt my whole life became so literal,” he said in a recent interview with The Guardian. There’s an intensity to the darkness behind his satire, a scathing clarity.
And while the world around Misty has certainly gotten darker, it would seem that it’s gotten darker close to home as well. “I’m not my biggest fan either,” he says in that same Guardian interview, after discussing why some might disapprove of his satire. He knows he’s playing the Holden Caulfield of indie pop when calling out “these LA phonies and their bullshit bands” in the ten-part ‘Leaving LA’. The matrix of subversion and self-knowing is intensely reflexive, even inescapable. And in that step, Pure Comedy becomes almost conversationally bulletproof. Reacting to satire, especially such meta-satire, will get boiled down to either revering gospel or not getting some larger message. However, getting stuck in that dichotomy is itself dependent on buying into the value of the entertainment tradition that Misty so clearly wants to tear down. It’s a no-win situation, and if you say so, then that’s exactly what Misty wants you to say, nya-nya-n-nya-nya.
The thirteen-minute ‘Leaving LA’ exemplifies this taunting self-awareness. The most common gripe with Tillman is that he’s self-obsessed or too generally grandiose. Pure Comedy (or, I would say, Tillman in general) doesn’t suffer for its big ideas, it thrives on them; the real problem is the constant circling and underlining and pointing out those big ideas when just letting them sit and mystify in their black hole weightiness would do. Playing out as a mock epic poem or classical monologue—a fitting tie, considering the namedrops of Ovid and Oedipus—‘Leaving LA’ has so many self-aware nods that you’d think it had developed a tic. “I’m beginning to see the end/ Of how it all goes down between me and them/ Some ten-verse chorus-less diatribe/ Plays as they all jump ship/ I used to like this guy/ But this new shit makes me want to die,” he sings on the eighth verse, the song analysing itself.
The sardonic autobiography’s endless ramblings are ensconced within beautifully arranged orchestral trappings. Throughout Pure Comedy, Misty worked with Gavin Bryars and Nico Muhly to produce softly nodding melodies in lacquered piano, plush acoustic guitar, plenty of strings, horns, and slinky percussion, a lounge singer sitting in with the orchestra on his smoke break. The sighing title track and the Elton John-indebted swing “Total Entertainment” use their full complement of instrumentalists cleverly, maximizing the dramatic punch of every curling saxophone and elongated syllable, Misty chasing the spotlight like a game of hopscotch. The instrumental mixture flickers in principle, but starts to deteriorate and dim after only a few iterations.
Following that shift on verse eight of ‘Leaving LA’, Misty narrates a life-changing moment listening to Fleetwood Mac while almost choking to death as a child, his mother holding him. For Misty fans, verse eight is their bread and butter, taking on the self-indulgence of this sort of song. But admitting to self-indulgence isn’t the same as not being self-indulgent. “Leaving LA” knows its own strength and yet wants to make sure you know that it knows that—but also wants to apologize for it, rather than just let it be. Verse nine, that heartbreaking note about his relationship with his mother is the reason for the song, and the self-apologetic meta comedy cramps it severely.
Ambition isn’t Misty’s achilles heel; it’s the cracks of things falling apart under their own weight covered over by the caulking of Misty saying something like, “Well, I’m not that great anyway.” Tillman operates comfortably in this messy, postmodern maximalism, and yet it lacks the impact of his songs that approach meaning in more swift terms. He loses track of the impact in the micro as well, stretching words like “creature” out to their vowel-liest head-space in “Birdie” and spraying string glissandos throughout, leaving a want for a moment of punch. Songs start to blur together, their elongated tails connecting to the head of the follower, an ouroboros of soft tones and sharp tongue.
At every moment of the album, it’s clear Misty values his role as provocateur, something that can certainly make a big impact, particularly as he gets a bigger and bigger stage. But some of his punchlines in Pure Comedy, if it’s fair to call them that considering the album title, hit too bluntly on the nose. On “When the God of Love Returns There Will Be Hell to Pay,” he takes God on a tour of creation and shrugs to say “it’s just human nature,” a dusty, recycled trope. “What’s there to lose for a ghost in a cheap rental suit clinging to a rock that is hurtling through space?” he asks on ‘In Twenty Years or So’, equally tired and tested images. Moreover, the message of both those lines are covered more interestingly elsewhere. In ‘The Memo’, he takes religion to task sharply and in much fresher terms: “Keep the golden calf, just need the bullshit/ They won’t just sell themselves into slavery/ They’ll get on their knees and pay you to believe.” On ‘A Bigger Paper Bag’, he calls himself out for his posturing with much more incision than ‘Twenty Years’, showing far more personality. “I’ve got the world by the balls, am I supposed to behave?/ What a fraud, what a con/ You’re the only one I love,” he sings sweetly, rascally.
“Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift,” he sings on ‘Total Entertainment Forever’. It’s a headline, though it’s unclear whether he expected it to get an eye roll or outrage. And again, it’s somewhere in the middle: he could have chosen another VR server and/or celebrity—I’m thinking “Bedding Phil Donahue every night inside the Playstation Vue” is outdated, but close. But anyone who’s stopped by his merch table would know Misty has a familiarity with another provocateur with Swift-ian previous: Kanye West. Misty and Kanye have their similarities, but Kanye is unabashed about his intentions and drive, while Misty’s paired his with a heaping dose of irony and a dash of self-loathing. Both approaches have their charms for a moment, and both can get to be a bit much when grinded out in the long-term, repeated over and over.
And, at this point calling Swift into the mix doesn’t feel controversial, just on the nose. And if that line and others like it are offered to put an ironic filter on irony itself, to look at how ironic it is to be ironic … that dog chases its own tail infinitely. Analysing the meaning of entertainment and life itself via pop music has been done a dozen times, and doing so while offering up an answer has been done a dozen more. Misty’s acting as a spokesman for irony and a critic of life, telling us the world is terrible with a blasé laugh—but that isn’t particularly fresh territory, nor does the music pop and flash with any revelatory experience. There’s a predictability to his insouciance, which is its own ironic irony.
And that’s where the reveal of Pure Comedy can’t leave every listener oohing and aahing every time. He’s done being the entertainer on Letterman, coquettishly posed on top of his piano. But he’s clearly not done performing. There is a hinge there, and Misty has repeatedly railed in interviews on the difference between entertainment and art, which gets to it. He’s clearly making art on Pure Comedy, but he knows the thin line between performing and entertaining, and wants to be sure you see which side he’s on.
Allowing a little more mystery, a little more trust that the audience can follow along could make the trick magical. Or maybe we’ll wind up with Misty ditching the performance aspect altogether, instead just gnashing his teeth, rending his clothes, and screaming his truths into the void. Though something tells me he’d still turn to an imaginary camera and offer a wink at the end.