These are absurd times we are living then, and there is probably no one more aware of it than Joshua Tillman, also known as Father John Misty. Since going solo from folk group Fleet Foxes (in which he was drummer), Tillman has put out a handful of records showcasing his witty and sardonic persona. His second album, I Love You, Honeybear was an immensely charming, sharply written meditation on personal relationships, and one of the best records of 2015.
Tillman’s latest, Pure Comedy, is easily his most ambitious record yet. The biting commentary effervescent in Honeybear is blown up to massive scale. Tillman tackles everything from media, politics, life’s meaning (or lack-therof) and the absurdity of human existence. At 74 minutes, Pure Comedy is a dense, challenging, and at times, exhausting album. At times, Tillman’s vision feels too sweeping in its scope, and his songwriting and a lot less subtle than his previous efforts. Those who were swept away by Honeybear‘s razor-edged reflections on love may be turned away by the long, almost rambling waterfalls of insight that make up Pure Comedy.
It can be argued that Honeybear is indeed the better record, as it is certainly the more refined. Pure Comedy could benefit from some consolidation, and more instrumental variety. After so many piano and guitar ballads with only the occasional horn or string section, they begin to blend together. Pure Comedy is also much more difficult to listen to in portions as well. It works much better with straight-through listens rather than picking out individual tracks.
That being said, the whole of Pure Comedy is a very strong record. Tillman’s insight is scattered and overwhelming, but this seems to fit the album’s theme: our crushingly overbearing modern culture. Knowing Tillman, he probably made the album very specifically for this reason. The album covers a range of emotional engagements, from the goofy and quippy “Total Entertainment Forever,” to the lovely, drawn out ballad “Leaving L.A.” and the angry, impassioned title track. Where Pure Comedy falls short in refinement and musical variety, it makes up for in pure emotional engagement and sincerity. This is an album that will draw you in and demand your attention. And while Tillman is famous for his occasionally obnoxious ironic view of the world, it feels like the man really seems to care about what he’s saying here. The album’s absolutely beautiful closer, “In Twenty Years or So,” Tillman argues, despite treading for over an hour on despair and absurdity, that “It’s a miracle to be alive/ There’s nothing to fear.” An “everything will be alright in the end” finish is rarely more cathartic.
People may be put off by the Father John Misty persona, and that’s understandable, but they’d be missing out on the work of a very talented, one-of-a-kind modern songwriter. Pure Comedy may have flaws and can be a bit of work to get into, but with a few listens and some effort, it is a very rewarding, and insightful listen.