The new Father John Misty album, “Pure Comedy,” is a professorial collection of songs brooding with Post-Modern neurosis. I could spend the entire essay focusing on the lyrical content, which bloats the extensive tracklist, but there’s so much complexity in the world-view expressed in this long batch of songs that it may be best to either take it or leave it.
What I find more interesting is the aesthetic evolution of Father John Misty here. For his third studio album, Josh Tillman, the man behind the moniker, teamed up with producer Jonathan Wilson. The sonic journey in this double length album is reminiscent of Pink Floyd, but with the cunning political and social perspective of Bob Dylan. Lush sound effects bleed between tracks, and stunning, wide-angle atmospheres stun the ears.
However, it isn’t only the cinematic, “sit down in front of the vinyl in a daze for an hour” mood that recollects the early 1970s rock. It appears, from the short film, which showed behind the scenes footage, and a keen listen to these recordings, that the drums, guitar, piano and even vocals were recorded live in the studio. This may seem a technical aspect to mention, but it is an outstanding, remarkable feature of a modern album release. Certainly, it's also another influence of Jonathan Wilson.
Solo records by Jonathan Wilson, which are self-produced, like “Gentle Spirit” and “Fanfare,” feature lengthy and beautiful instrumental sections, that are clearly improvised. Nobody these days is attempting such straight-to-tape musicianship -- not since Crosby, Stills and Nash those decades ago.
I contend that Tillman gravitated towards his collaborator and producer’s sensibilities, integrating these ideas into his own work. What's compelling, is to hear Wilson's mastery of the late Sixties, early Seventies vibe, used for such sarcastic and philosophical lyrics (as opposed to his own songwriting, which tends to be full of lightweight, New Age sentiments).
In fact, the combination of stunningly condensed, brilliantly macroscopic commentary, with a pure folk vocal, is masterful.
There are moments when his attempts at mastery come off as grandeur. In a recent interview with Zane Lowe, Tillman said that the song “Leaving LA” was intended to “Do something only a fifteen-minute song can do; I wanted people to get really lost in it.” Instead, it was just long-winded, with a colossal eight verses.
The album could be titled "Pure Misery" at points. It seems Tillman is trying just way too hard; specifically on tracks like "The Memo," where he sings:
"I'm gonna steal some bedsheets from an amputee. I'm gonna mount em on a canvas in the middle of the gallery; I'm gonna tell everybody it was painted by a chimpanzee"
Still, there is no doubt that on most of the record there is a vibrancy that is reminiscent of Tillman’s performer spirit, which I witnessed last summer. On the title track “Pure Comedy,” he screams “It’s like something a mad-man would conceive.” Bone chilling.
When Tillman performed this song on Saturday Night Live, it was a refreshing and awe-inspiring moment, similar to when I first discovered him when performing “Bored in the USA” on Late Night. The moments he creates are like blips in the matrix, a reminder that wakes us up out of a stupor, makes us aware we’ve been half-asleep, dreaming away, awash in entertainment.
Tillman wishes for us to realize that this absurd culture is “Pure Comedy,” that we should reflect and realize that we are responsible, culpable in our own way. He may be right. But, in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy those cris drums and delicious vocals.