You know the tale: bloke from Fleet Foxes gets bored being a fleet fox, makes a great album, gives sardonic interviews, comes across as a musical version of Joaquin Phoenix, annoys and delights in equal measure.
So what’s next for Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty? Another album, probably contractual. In between 2015’s I Love You Honeybear and this album, he’s written Sinner’s Prayer with and for Lady Gaga, and contributed as one of 15 (!) writers on Beyonce‘s Hold Up, both ‘out of morbid curiosity’.
Having seen superstars close up, and been approached by major labels, Tillman wisely stuck with Bella Union and Sub Pop for the release of his third album. In a Rolling Stone interview, he noted that he doesn’t ‘belong in the world’ of major labels. Perhaps he wants to be on the outside pissing in, without people criticising his love of LSD to self-medicate his depression.
‘Freedom,’ he told Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian, ‘is to be able to take it or leave it. I passed what I wanted in terms of success miles and miles ago. It’s all gravy now.’
He’s a musician, by the way, and one who comments on his times like a Greek playwright putting words into the mouths of his chorus. Or in his case putting choruses next to his words, although there aren’t many of those on Pure Comedy. Step away if you want pop songs with three verses and a middle eight.
Step away too if you want banality. The much-discussed 6Music interview from 2016 is brilliant radio: ‘I get the feeling you’re leading me with blunt questions’ is how he responds to questions about Fleet Foxes by experienced broadcasters Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie. ‘I really am not, fella… You’re slightly exasperating me, gosh!’ sighs Stuart, audibly, who is used to difficult musicians from his days at the NME, when the Josh Tillmans of the world were indulged by the music press. Now they are a novelty, or in The 1975.
The pair grow frustrated as he talks about jeggings and merch sales, and argues with the guys’ view of ‘the character’ of Father John Misty as opposed to Josh playing himself: ‘To me, it’s more my sensibility to call myself something ridiculous, and seeing it on a marquee… this fantastical name that means nothing’. Josh told Dorian Lynskey that ‘I was completely fucked up… Fear and Loathing level’ at that time, and expresses remorse for it.
Still, that album took him above ground, and he sold out the Camden Roundhouse for three nights. As is common for artists looking to promote their work, Tillman put out four tracks in advance of Pure Comedy’s release. The title track, which opens the album, was one of them. Over six minutes Josh sounds like Pink Floyd, Rufus Wainwright, Nilsson, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and, sure, even Ringo Starr.
Total Entertainment Forever recalls Kurt Cobain’s work: there are odd chords, a bar of na-na-nas and an opening line about ‘bedding Taylor Swift’. (That makes a Kanye West comparison apt, and easy. Misty certainly infuriates his fans like Mr West does.)
Tillman goes on to sing of people being ‘plugged into our hubs…a frozen smile on every face’ after a glorious horn part. On an album that lasts seventy-four minutes it’s one of only three tracks to come in at under four minutes. The others are Smoochie, with a distant slide guitar recalling Phosphorescent and plenty of other Americana indie acts, and Two Wildly Different Perspectives: ‘Either way some blood is shed’. It may be about war, it may not; it’s a deceptively pretty arrangement.
The five-minute Ballad of the Dying Man was another album teaser, with lots of diminished chords and a tale told by an omniscient narrator in falsetto surrounded by strings. Lines include ‘Homophobes, hipsters and one percents’ and ‘We leave as clueless as we came’; you can imagine Bob Dylan writing that if he weren’t recording American Songbook gems to play on his Neverending Tour.
All the acerbity of the album’s lyrics should not distract from the fact that Tillman’s voice very much holds up alongside those songwriters he envies. Birdie begins with some backwards vocals and adds piano and some digital effects, and ends like a very good Radiohead song. It does draw you in, rather than push you away, and you may find yourself being converted by Misty’s way of viewing the world. It may be like yours, which means you’ll already be in the choir, but there’s always room for one or three thousand more.
The album’s centrepiece is Leaving LA, ‘some ten-verse chorusless diatrible’ he sings as the song hits the eleventh of its thirteen minutes. Again it feels like one of Dylan’s greatest songs, and took him three years to write.
He will probably be criticised for solipsism, but Misty puts his self in his music, and lets us listen. One of the verses is the story of ‘my first memory of music’: inspired by choking on a sweetie (watermelon-flavoured, which serves him right) in a store and hearing his normally distant mother calling for help while Fleetwood Mac played on the speakers. ‘I relive it most times the radio’s on… That’s when I first saw that comedy won’t stop for even little boys dying in department stores’. It ends with an ellipsis: ‘What we both think now is…’ – maybe he’ll write Leaving LA Part Two some day.
The Memo is a satire, on vocal harmony groups and the voracity of fame: ‘Just between you and me, they’re just like the ones before’. The arrangement is another slow shuffle to emphasise the lyric; being a pop star doesn’t sound fun. The distorted vocal and the computerised voice – recalling Fitter Happier by Radiohead – puts Tillman into Thom Yorke territory. The ten-minute So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain is another argument for calling the album the OK Computer, Meat Is Murder or Blonde on Blonde for the 2010s.
Others can call it that, but we will stop just short of doing so. As you will learn from Pure Comedy the album, which will be at the top of many critics’ lists even if it doesn’t sell as well as it should, Father John Misty’s music is full of words about man’s place in the world, as if the song is his pulpit and his words are his screed. Turns out the title of Father isn’t just a throwaway after all.