In an increasingly painful era of overshared information, Joshua Tillman is something of a gift and a curse. He’s an undeniably distinct songwriter and lyricist with a beautiful voice. But he’s also well-read, verbose, and unafraid to drop passing references to Foucault, Hesse, and Plato in interviews and songs. Moreover, Tillman is an endlessly charming figure who accents his talents with a clearly contrived sex symbol image and knowing humor. This kind of self-awareness can be exhausting, and Tillman knows this, saying as much on “Leaving LA”: “She’s like, ‘Oh great, that’s all we need. Another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously.'”
Like Frank Zappa, Tillman is adroitly aware of the importance of the media in both promoting an artist’s brand as well as augmenting the way the music is received. Rather than treat his press cycle as a necessary, but an annoying task to survive in the music industry, Tillman channels his natural showmanship into pull-quotes that would feel like trolling were they not so plainly stated or well-considered. (Look into his recent comments about pop artists being “prisoners” when asked about co-writing songs for Beyonce and Lady Gaga.)
Pure Comedy, his third album under the Father John Misty moniker, continues Tillman’s privileging of words. His lyrics throughout aren’t reducible to simply being words meant to be sung, but as thoughts — each song could be seen as a thesis and explication — to be considered. Paring down the more varied music approach of Honeybear, Tillman delivers these songs with either a guitar or piano as main accompaniment and a retro-analog recording style for all the other instruments. This means that the album is candy for audiophiles with the drums sounding particularly fantastic alongside the gospel choirs, string arrangements, horns and electronic textures that augment the songs in key moments. Further gilding the proceedings is Tillman’s sumptuous singing, which has always been a strength, but here takes on even greater power with deft phrasing and the stunning ease with which he can move between full-bodied dulcet crooning to his elastic and lithe falsetto.
While Tillman stands well above any of his peers working in a similar lane, his classicist songwriting and production approach evoke the work of the late Elliott Smith. Similar to Smith, Tillman’s songs stand outside of time, working with instrumentation and structures that have existed well within the rock lexicon since the mid-’60s, but are enriched with an utterly original and idiosyncratic point of view and melodic sensibility. On Pure Comedy, Tillman makes an amalgam of John Lennon’s early solo work with Harry Nilsson’s vocal acuity and Leonard Cohen’s lyrical clarity and a sense of purpose. But reducing him to a combination of his influences is to misrepresent his creativity.
Pure Comedy is most compelling in its juxtaposition of Tillman’s mordant sense of humor with his intense horror at the state of the world. On the standout “Ballad of the Dying Man”, Tillman analyzes the final moments of a FOMO-sickened, message board crusader who wishes the world could have been created in his image so he could rate it. The buoyant “Total Entertainment Forever” pairs the fastest tempo on the album with an already legendary line about VR sex with Taylor Swift and closes on an image in which our civilization is unable to turn away from their entertainment — similar to titular video from David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.
Elsewhere the pained humor is stripped of its mirth on “The Memo” as Tillman punctures the blind faith that people put in art and music by analyzing the falsity in each sector, including the meaningless monetary value of fine art and the aggregate/algorithm-driven marketing of streaming services, finishing his verses with a variation of “They’ll pay you to believe.” Now, Tillman clearly believes in art as a powerful means of communication — if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have even considered making this album. But there is an abject sense of horror here (similar, at times, to David Foster Wallace) that does not so much speak as a morally superior voice, but rather as an incensed and impassioned one that cannot help but see the imperfection and utter inconsequence of, as the final track “In Twenty Years Or So” says, “the human experiment”.
Tillman’s premise can sometimes seem a little prosaic at times given the sheer weight of the thematic material. Take “When the God of Love Returns, There’ll Be Hell to Pay” for example, where he tosses up the knowing, shopworn line, “We say, it’s just human / Human nature / This place is savage and unjust.” But he ends the song with an unadorned lyric that ties in both God’s creation of the universe to human desire with gorgeous fashion: “We just want light in the dark / Some warmth in the cold / And to make something out of nothing / Sounds like someone else I know.” This flaw-to-strength ratio is present in some of Tillman’s audacious choices here, like making the most challenging song, the 13-minute pace-killing opus “Leaving LA”, the centerpiece of a 74-minute album. He practically goads listeners to turn the record off during “Leaving LA”, which sits in the middle of the tracklist, either killing the momentum or changing the pace, depending on your perspective. Additionally, there are a few songs like “A Bigger Paper Bag” and the Honeybear-ish “Smoochie” that are beautifully rendered but don’t quite hang with the rest of the tracks.
In the two years since its release, I Love You, Honeybear has become a crossover success, garnering a huge amount of goodwill for Tillman and is shaping up to be a canonical work from this decade. But rather than rest on his laurels or deliver a bigger and better sequel, Tillman has instead created an album that covers a wider variety of subject matter with more focused and rich songwriting. On the album-closing “In Twenty Years or So”, Tillman talks about how the aforementioned “human experiment” will have run its course, but, as drinks are getting served at dinner and pianist plays “This Must Be the Place”, he remarks, “It’s a miracle to be alive.” Listening to records like this will make you say the same thing.