I first saw Joshua Tillman in 2011, when he was a member of Fleet Foxes. His shoulder-length hair and impressive stature made him easily noticeable, even amongst the merry band of late twenty-something bearded folkies. Hearing him play and harmonize with presence and skill, I was struck. This was a standout performer, a guy you wanted to root for, to see more of.
In the coming years, I did. The next year, he released Fear Fun, his first album as the eccentric, frustrating, pretentious, and endearing character Father John Misty. It’s an album full of great song craft, from the pulsing folk anthem of “Only Son of the Ladiesman” to the sad and hilarious “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” (recently treated to a confounding cover on “The Voice”).
Then he got married and, fueled by the new relationship, he released I Love You, Honeybear, an album I’ve revisited time and time again. I’ve been spellbound by the way that Tillman casts himself in these songs. He is the protagonist in the title track, the villain in “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment,” a maudlin clown in “Bored in the USA,” and a jealous secondary pair of eyes in “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow.” In as many ways as possible, Honeybear asks: what happens when an unconscionable, arrogant jerk is overwhelmed by the kind of love that makes him want to be better? I wrote a review a little more than two years ago and have been thinking about it ever since.
My love for Father John Misty had me excited for just about anything that he could put out. I loved that voice, that natural and frustrating wit, that gorgeous folk sensibility. But last month, he released the first single from his new album, both of which share a name: “Pure Comedy.” I excitedly readied myself to listen to it, and it…is not great. In fact, it is very bad, indeed.
“Pure Comedy” presents itself, like many songs recently released, as a protest song against the Trump presidency. He’s tackled “message” songs before, and potently; “Bored in the USA” and “Holy Shit!!” are immensely powerful. But those songs are cleverly draped in irony, self-awareness, and self-deprecation. This tone is absent from “Pure Comedy,” a song that feels unyieldingly smug. While the notion that the current political climate will create “better art” is exceedingly problematic (it is extremely privileged to see the chaos, anger, and lives lost in the last few months and think, “this would make a great song”), good art is crucial in any form of resistance.
And this, Misty’s attempt to make good, resistant art, is not only driven by the notion that Trump will cause the creation of “better art,” it actually doesn’t even qualify as “better.” It’s a six-minute act of arrogance, driven by a solipsistic and unimpressive video, bridging angry animated figures of humans with footage of Trump, religious figures, and destruction. It’s a simple argument—“this new world is scary”—and it’s told in shallow, pretentious imagery. It feels obscuring rather than insightful.
But the true frustration I have with the song is that it’s beautiful. Tillman’s gorgeous voice soars over a mix of heavy drums and beautifully rendered piano, in a slow-burning, folky unraveling. If I didn’t understand a word he was saying, this would be my favorite song of the year, but, alas, the lyrics, often the strongest part of a Father John Misty song, are where this song stumbles and falls.
It starts out just fine, with Tillman explaining the notion that “our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips,” and so “we emerge half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end is kind enough to fill us in.” It’s a nicely articulated thought, and appears to begin an interesting exploration of human development. But as the song continues, these thoughts are traded in for a neutered, mean-spirited, and distant look at the current world climate.
There are many great songs criticizing or satirizing religion, but to do so effectively, the artist must apply a narrow lens. Tillman’s first target in this song is organized religion, and not only is it an awkward pivot from the song’s introduction, it’s also incredibly poorly articulated. He waxes on about “risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits” and their “sacred texts written by woman-hating epileptics.”
There are criticisms to be found in Christianity, but this is not the way to do it. Everything said here has been said before and it’s been said without that removal, that “them,” which is what makes this criticism seem particularly spineless. There are works that I love that deal with the strangeness of organized religion, the hypocrisies and salvations, the empowerment and powerlessness it can bring, but those words aren’t found here. I don’t know why I find this so frustrating—perhaps it’s because Tillman, a white, heterosexual man, discusses something this shallowly, when it is, in my opinion, a mandate to understand more deeply what doesn’t directly affect you, but at any rate, it’s tough to find any real insight here.
Similarly neutered by distance and shallowness are Tillman’s takes on political hypocrisy. Take the line “they build fortunes poisoning their offspring, and hand out prizes when someone patents the cure.” Like the rest of the song, this line is a superficially damning, yet fundamentally meaningless, later echoed in notions like “their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs that they never ever have to leave.” Conceptually, Tillman is spouting out ideas that, further explored, might make compelling protest music, but he passes them by in a survey course of white knight activism, patting himself on the back for his understanding without demonstrating any expertise or providing insight into this understanding.
And where does this song end? With a complete cop out. After six minutes of preaching about “evil” religion, corporation, and politic, and parroting much better songs on those subjects, Tillman’s ultimate conclusion is this: “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.”
Really? That’s it? That’s all he can glean from the nebulous subject matter of his own song? It feels like a secondary conclusion, the prelude to something clever, ironic and insightful, but it seems that Tillman believed it was enough of those things to merit it being the final line. At least for me, it isn’t. It feels just as removed and low-stakes as the rest of this song, a perspective too above everything, too removed, too arrogant.
If I’m being too harsh to this song, it is because I’ve seen what Joshua Tillman, as Father John Misty, is capable of. He is an artist that, at the peak of his powers, can make me laugh, cry, think, and groan within a few syllables. But I am of the belief that, when an artist is this rare and remarkable, it is necessary to call them out when they fail. In a world where potent, specific, beautiful, and resistant art is becoming absolutely necessary, “Pure Comedy” just doesn’t cut it. It is too removed, too willing to point fingers without turning the lens on itself, too spiteful and self-important, and too much of a parroting of other work to be the affecting work Tillman is capable of. In his last few albums, Father John Misty has given us songs full of beauty, depth, and complexity. This is not one of those songs. Instead, “Pure Comedy” is a puddle that dreams itself an ocean.