Pure Comedy and the infuriating charm of Father John Misty

Pure ComedyYou don’t need me to tell you this, but I’ll say it anyway: Father John Misty is kind of a dick. He fancies himself a loveable provocateur on Pure Comedy, singing about having sex with Taylor Swift on live TV and then recoiling in horror at the suggestion that it might have been, you know, a little provocative. He was supposedly tripping on acid during that performance, as he was for his car-crash interview with Radcliffe & Maconie, and he’s keen for you to know it. What a rock star! What a modern day Tim Leary! And of course, he hates “the intersectional-virtue-warrior style of music writing” that us modern scribes peddle, ruining whatever politically incorrect lark he imagines himself to be peddling instead.

How tempting it would be, then, to dismantle his 80-minute treatise on the globalised world with the kind of withering gallows humour he evidently deems himself to have mastered. To tear it apart, to denounce the whole thing as a pretentious, self-serving footnote in the annals of rock history. But I can’t do it. Some writers have compared him to David Foster Wallace's portrayal in The End of the Tour, but my mind wanders instead to John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, finally listening to the demo tape handed to him by the obnoxious little punks on the street. Because, hand on furrowed brow, we must face the unwanted truth: Pure Comedy is a hot, brash, unbridled success.

It’s not like he doesn’t know all this. After all, painfully self-aware, postmodern reflexivity is Josh Tillman’s default setting. “I’m not bamboozled by the fact that people are disgusted by me,” he told the Guardian last week. “I’m not my biggest fan either. The criticisms that people have of me now are the same criticisms that my teachers, parents, and pastors had of me as a child: that I talk too much, that I’m loud, that I’m self-obsessed. It’s the same shit.” If he was worried enough to try and deflect any of those criticisms, Pure Comedy probably wouldn’t open with a six-minute lecture on the absurdity of all human existence – birth, war, religion, iron deficiency, the whole shooting match – and it certainly wouldn't have a thirteen-minute song called “Leaving LA” wedged in the middle. Perhaps he genuinely doesn’t care.

But half the reason he gets away with it isn’t because the lyrics are so irresistibly droll – though they often are – but because his songwriting is just miles ahead of the competition. Other than the now-infamous “Total Entertainment Forever”, a relatively high-tempo detour through Latin rhythms and brass, every track here builds at a deliberately slow pace. Not only does this mean that the all-important lyrics can be heard clearly, but the winsome folk progressions allow Tillman’s voice to soar and crack over a theatrical seventh chord when he wants to deliver the song’s killer line. “Leaving LA” and “In Twenty Years or So” benefit from beautiful string arrangements (courtesy of Gavin Bryars and Nico Muhly, respectively); elsewhere tracks like “Birdie” seem destined to simmer, before violently, gloriously boiling over.

Of course, like any good comedian, he artfully builds up this schtick, the better to blindside you with a moment of sincerity. That first track ends with the line, “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.” It’s a brief, cliché-heavy allusion to the romantic love that inspired 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, and fails to prepare the listener for the poignant rejoinder that meets it at the other end of the record. “But I look at you as our second drinks arrive,” he sings, “the piano players playing ‘This Must Be The Place’. And it’s a miracle to be alive.” In spite of everything Tillman’s faced down on Pure Comedy – and, beyond the vaudeville of Father John Misty, he has spoken openly about the fact that he’s struggling with depression and substance abuse again – the curtain falls with one more laugh at our expense. Because it is, somehow, still a miracle to be alive, and sometimes all it takes to remind us is the sight of an attractive person carrying a glass of wine towards us, soundtracked by Talking Heads. And you know, I could talk a bit about the first world privilege that affords him such luxuries, but I know he’d hate that.

Release: 7th April 2017, Bella Union


One Response to “Pure Comedy and the infuriating charm of Father John Misty”


    1. Pure Comedy and the infuriating charm of Father John Misty – Live List - 03/04/2017

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