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Father John Misty’s ‘Pure Comedy’ is Music for the End of Civilization, with All the Good Sad Chords

Josh Tillman returns as a folk prophet, conjuring future visions out of laughter and tears

father john misty review

Photo by Guy Lowndes

On the fantastic new Father John Misty record, we’re all doomed but we’re going to enjoy the hell out of it. The story of our downfall is told on a folk sound so big and open that you can camp out in it. These songs invite you to sit down but the story keeps you leaning forward, laughing but spooked: this is the future and it’s the end of us all. It’s Pure Comedy.

On his second album, Josh Tillman is a storyteller of charming promises, both totally honest and possessed of facetiousness. The confidence of the songwriting is revealed in the first line: “The comedy of man starts like this…” In a powerful 75 minutes, human nature is challenged and wrung out. You are family to this record, and this is going to be the dinner where the things you don’t talk about are laid bare. Religion. Politics. In a movie, the directness of this subject matter might be considered too ‘on the nose’ – but these songs draw voltage from the accuracy of their aim.

‘Total Entertainment Forever’ may have shocked some bloggers with an opening line about “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift,” but if you stuck around you got a piano banger about our desire to be sold something that soothes us: “When historians find us we’ll be in our homes / Plugged into our hubs, skin and bones / A frozen smile on every face / As the stories replay / This must have been a wonderful place”

This is death by gadget, sung with a Kurt Vonnegut smirk that pays off because the melodies are dynamite. This song has all the magic sad chords and a horn-based chorus you almost know before it hits, cried with that crucial rhythm and blues saxophone: the baritone.

The go-to tempo is largo, slow and strong, and the production by Tillman and Jonathan Wilson is a flip through a classic 70’s record collection. Recorded on tape in under two takes, you can hear the West Coast, like the guitar folk rock of Neil Young and the gonzo piano pop of Warren Zevon. Tillman knows the earthy roots of singer-songwriters like Michael Hurley, like 1964’s First Songs, and certainly the poetry and humor of Leonard Cohen.

‘Leaving LA’ is a self-referential, self-depreciating, and self-conscious masterpiece. If Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ comes to mind on the 13 minute song, that because these are lyrics of the highest caliber. Lines build, designed for laughs and sighs, and over simple guitar chords a journal is laid bare, both sentimental and funny: “These LA phonies and their bullshit bands / Just sounds like dollar signs and Amy Grant / So reads the pull quote of my last cover piece / Entitled ‘Oldest Man In Folk Rock Speaks’”

‘Ballad of a Dying Man’ has the White Album’s melancholy piano octaves and a chorus of Eagles-like harmony, rising to tell us, “In no time at all this will be the distant past.” ‘Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution’ includes the piano from Tillman’s own ‘Holy Hell,’ which was released in November of 2016, and uses the palette of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and Elton John ballads to paint a scavenger wasteland that isn’t all that bad.

Elsewhere on Pure Comedy, cinematic organs reveal secret passageways in strange mansions and pedal-steel guitars slide like meteors crossing the stars. The lugubrious depth of a good drink settles over the second-half of the album. On these later omens, the absurdity of life has been shown so thoroughly that you just have to laugh at it.

father john misty pure comedy review

Josh Tillman gives the listener a big experience with Pure Comedy, available from Sub Pop on April 7th. At times, Tillman’s voice disappears into falsetto sweetly while retaining its grit. Tillman never stops to see which moments make you laugh or make you uncomfortable. In the last few decades Nick Cave, Jason Molina and Tim Heidecker have approached songwriting with a similar rawness. The album’s cover artwork (above), by Ed Steed, is Hieronymus Bosch by way of Matt Groening.

This is a big record, and it ends by telling the listener not to be afraid, despite having described civilization from beginning to destruction. This is a prescient record, recorded last year, that saw the visions in the cauldron and tackled the daily cruelty unfolding in our world. Pure Comedy is told like a novel, and it succeeds in the advice that author Don DeLillo once offered: “Stories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror.”

Father John Misty plays songs that say there’s going to be hell to pay, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t laugh at it when you can.

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