To a degree, Josh Tillman has always positioned himself as a man out of time when performing in his Father John Misty persona. There’s a wounded troubadour embrace of classic pop that’s always been the shiniest threads running through the fabric of his songs. There’s also been a sense of humor that clangs against the opposing guardrails of bleak and boisterous, but mostly Father John has long sounded like a guy on the brink of collapse, and not in the James Brown grand showman way. The existential agony is what’s getting him down. Even happiness sows aching confusion.
Tillman quadruples down on all that affected ennui on Pure Comedy, the third album under the Father John Misty banner. The title itself is of course it’s own bratty provocation, a preemptive strike against any who might impose too much aspiration onto this cascade of bitter, verbose poetry and swaying music. He renders a battle axe out of rancid cream cheese and swings it all inclinations of artistic pride, laying out his embittered argument in “The Memo,” which finds him imagining prankish acts of anti-art meant to expose the hollowness of the current cultural moment. “And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time,” sings Tillman. “Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online.”
As he performs with the floppy swagger and cooing tones of an old-time crooner, Tillman calls up an old man grouchiness to go with it. He devotes a remarkable amount of time to heaping disdain on all these kids who keep littering his lawn with stray fidget spinners. He opens “Total Entertainment Forever” by recounting the newfound pastime of “Bedding Taylor Swift/ Every night inside the Oculus Rift” before proceeding to a assessment of mounting aggravation: “When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes/ Plugged into our hubs/ Skin and bones/ A frozen smile on every face.” The crusty sourness undercuts Tillman’s quietly enduring gift for elegant, tuneful music. On “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” there’s something about the gentleness of the piano part of and the way that Tillman holds the notes vocally that makes it sound like early Elton John, albeit a more ruminative, less instinctively jaunty version of pop than the former Reginald Dwight usually delivered.
The album’s strengths are ravaged by its weaknesses. “Leaving L.A.” is lax to the point of being nearly unbearable. That Tillman sardonically calls attention to his own creative excesses in the lyrics (“I’m beginning to see the end/ Of how it all goes down between me and them/ Some ten verse, chorus-less diatribe/ Plays as they all jump ship/ ‘I used to like this guy/ This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die'”) doesn’t wash away the sins with the blessed water of meta-nificent self-awareness. Instead, it cruelly illustrates the fatal flaw of the blithely cavorting ironist: doing something with the intended distance of knowing mockery still involves doing that thing. What’s meant as wry commentary instead becomes another tiresome contribution to the discourse supposedly being held up for ridicule.