Fear Fun, J Tillman’s debut under the moniker Father John Misty, brims with wry anecdotes, mordant commentaries on contemporary life, and a pop awareness that balances philosophic inquiry with hummable and primetime-friendly hooks. I listened to Tillman’s well-received follow-up, I Love You, Honeybear, I don’t know how many times, but I could never get past the sense that the album failed to gain traction until track six or seven, though “True Affection” (track three) did stand out as a varyingly sincere and backhanded commentary on the complexity of relationships in the 21st Century (perhaps any century). With Honeybear, Tillman attempted to explore the confluence of high art and schlock, a blending of Confessionalism and Las Vegas masquerade, a notable meta-intention given the times and his particular take on them. This aesthetic mission, however, was compromised by frequently sagging melodies and vocal directions that seemed uncertain and overly desultory.
The ending tracks of Honeybear, however, particularly the damning and unforgettable “Bored in the USA,” were eloquent precursors to Tillman’s latest, Pure Comedy, his most ambitious, cohesive, and provocative release to date. While Tillman is still mostly passing judgment on the outside world (its intergenerational rackets and collective delusions), he’s doing so via (frequently) personal and (occasionally) self-incriminating revelations; that is, he includes himself as part of the problem; i.e., the condescension is mostly but not entirely gone. His depression, misanthropy, and self-loathing are on full display. He’s much like Gulliver after Swift’s protagonist returns from his adventure with the Houyhnhnms, hostile toward civilization and the Yahoos of the world, and deeply perturbed by what he perceives as a fundamental flaw in human (psychological and social) evolution.
The opening title track establishes the tone and direction of the album, and stands as an ontological explanation. Our suffering and incongruence with nature affect every aspect of our development. The song opens:
The comedy of man starts like this:
Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips
So, nature, she devised this alternative:
We emerge half-formed and hope whoever greets us on the other end
Is kind enough
To fill us in
Their illusions that are all that they can see
Their horizons that just forever recede
How’s this for irony:
Their idea of being free
Is a prison of beliefs
They’ve every right to never leave
Melodies wend but rarely lose cogency. Tillman’s lyrics are atypically philosophic for the rock idiom, yet the melodies, roiling ambience, and Tillman’s vocal skills consistently enroll a listener. Here’s Tillman’s condemnation of religion and its arbitrary, fairytale nature: “These mammals are hell-bent on fashioning new gods / So they can go on being godless animals.” And his conclusion regarding what we accept as norms: “Comedy / It’s like something that a madman would conceive.”
Fear Fun and Honeybear reflected the musical influence of Elton John (think Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), and this influence is apparent on Pure Comedy as well; for example, “Total Entertainment Forever” and “Ballad of the Dying Man.” However, there are other moments characterized by a more sober introspection and textural musicality (“A Bigger Paper Bag”) that illustrate the influence of John Lennon’s early solo work (not “Imagine,” at least not thematically, Pure Comedy in many ways a lyrical rebuttal of “Imagine,” a rejection of possible utopia, and an acceptance that informed humor in the face of an irrevocably dystopian existence may be one’s only viable response).
The epic “Leaving LA” remains engaging despite being thirteen minutes plus in length. The melody remains compelling despite its repetitiveness. Structurally the song reminds me of Harry Chapin’s “Taxi,” though it’s possible to make a Dylan comparison, perhaps “Highlands” from Time Out of Mind. Mark Kozelek’s rambling approach, particularly underscored on the seminal Benji and the tediously diaristic Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood, comes to mind as well.
On “Birdie,” Tillman’s voice is achingly gossamer; meanwhile he still expresses a hardboiled worldview: “Some envision a state governed by laws of business / Merger and acquisition instead of violence or nations / Where do I sign up?” The combination of fragile vocalization and raw indignation works well. “Smoochie” is aptly placed on the album, a more straightforward folk-rock sound that contrasts with the moodier songs that precede and follow it. The long (almost as long as “Leaving LA”) “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” strikes me as one of the highpoints of the album, the chorus line—echoing the title—referencing Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel as well as Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain.” The ending of the song is appropriately enigmatic. With the lines “So the longer I stay here / The longer there's no future,” is Tillman alluding to a Zen state in which entrenched preoccupations and egoic defaults are shed and a relative enlightenment is achieved? Or is this a Sisyphean reference to the notion of sameness, that once the possibility of a varying future is removed, all that remains is the tedium of a repetitive and looping present? Given the tone of the song and the expressiveness of Tillman’s voice, I’d suggest the former, though the answer is probably both. Even on “Magic Mountain,” existential fluctuations are unavoidable. Enlightenment, whether fleeting or uninterrupted, is not a change in experience but a change in perception, not a transformation of psychological content but rather a transformation of one’s relationship with that content.
Though the use of meta-devices—methods by which a creative work refers to or comments upon itself, typically for the purpose of satire, to create ambiguities, or to reinforce/undermine stylistic approaches—has been integral to literary work for generations, the use of them in music is less prevalent, in part as a balance between posturing and authenticity is more difficult to establish and sustain in a pop context. What Tillman accomplishes lyrically and tonally is similar to what David Foster Wallace achieved through graphophiliac tendencies and palimpsests of explanatory and/or elaborative footnotes. Tillman is as textual as he is musical, and one can’t help but make connections to such writers as the abovementioned Wallace, but also Jorge Luis Borges (in many ways, with his uber-objective tone, the quintessence of meta-fiction) and the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who wrote prolifically on the instability of language, perspective, and meaning.
We’re perpetrators, victims, and chronic whiners, Tillman suggests, as he vacillates between Confessionalist and satirist, alternately voicing wounds and mocking the mind that manufactures its own suffering. He asks perennial questions, driven to more deeply understand human history and his own experience: What is persona? How concomitant is persona to artistic expression? To self-perception? Is freedom possible, creatively and/or existentially? Fortunately Pure Comedy doesn’t provide any platitudinal answers but rather invites a listener on a journey that, dark as it is, implicitly affirms the importance of the creative impulse—perhaps the only salvation we have.