FATHER JOHN MISTY
Pure Comedy (Inertia)
If it’s true that there are few people more devout and fevered than the born again religious (certainly compared with those who grew up in it) then it would also be true, doubly so possibly, that there are few more virulent in their antagonism than the born again irreligious.
The scars are still clear, the anger still close and the bitterness is palpable. So much so that it can be a little overwhelming.
And I say this as someone who left one church (yeah, THAT one) decades ago without a second thought then or in the time since but do get the way you’re indelibly marked by the experience.
Often too this separation will be accompanied by at least nascent, and sometimes full blown despair at what man has wrought. And I don’t mean his impact on the world but the way religion as promulgated by these holy types has warped the hearts, minds and - yes, if you believe in it - souls of those who lived through and survived/escaped.
What’s also interesting in new and old apostates is that even if/when the anger goes the language and the references don’t. The biblical tales and characters, the co-existence of fear and retribution with guilt and reparation, the tone of there being two ways to lead your life, righteous or damnable, carry on in secular material.
I think it’s fair to say that the after-effects of religious experience are still resonating inside Josh Tillman, a man who chose his performance name of Father John Misty with at the very least a dark irony.
Religious and biblical references abound in Pure Comedy, and rarely in any positive light. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, his malformed body seen as reflecting his inner deformity, these men are regularly described as physically damaged, corrupted or worse.
But they are not alone. In fact there is hardly anyone described here who is not rotted in some way, inside or out. And that includes Tillman himself. In fact, self-disgust is a strong emotion throughout the album.
The prevailing mood here is jaundiced, at best: the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and we are accelerating to that end out of greed, strong desires and weak will, and a failure to respect, let alone, love anyone but those who can serve our base needs.
Tillman comes across as an almost self-idealised misanthrope. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course.
Not for us at least; can’t say what it is doing to, or reflecting in Tillman who has latterly been openly discussing heavy use of drugs and engaging in behaviour which would not be described as sober and contemplative.
Tillman can be very funny: his observations acute, his barbs spot on, and his jokes at his own expense brutal. His descriptions can leap out of the speakers with the clarity of a Robert Altman shot.
Take the album’s centrepiece, the 13 minute long mission statement/resignation note/novel-in-waiting Leaving LA, where Tillman sings about “five foot chicks with parted lips, selling sweatshop jeans/these LA phonies and their bullshit bands, that sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant” before adding later a woman telling him “oh great, that’s just what we all need/another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously”.
The tongue, the LA locales, the targets and the contradicting album title all very much recall Randy Newman, with added religious after-effects. But if Newman is the lyrical template, Pure Comedy is what it might have been like if Newman, rather than Bernie Taupin, had been Elton John’s lyricist.
Tillman’s voice and his melodic lines are very much built on an early 70s Elton John ballad framework: elegant, reflective, quite lovely. Individually, they can be quite captivating, holding you close and in bursts of two or three songs they create a momentum of beautiful sadness that infiltrates your day.
Collectively though, these songs suffer from the extremely limited melodic palette and narrow tempo range Tillman has chosen for an album which at 13 song across 75 minutes is no modestly proportioned exercise.
Save for the swinging, Bowie-esque Total Entertainment Forever, (the song in which he discusses a technological future where any of us could flick a switch and bed “Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift, after Mr and the Mrs finish dinner and the dishes”) Pure Comedy is a case of repetitive strain injury.
It’s as if Tillman, not satisfied with the dystopian future he sees emerging from our soul-rotted present wants to pound the message into us and then demand that we recite the lesson back to him to prove we understand that “when the God of love returns, there will be hell to pay”.
Which is a shame because there are many moments, such as the gospel choir at the end of Ballad Of The Dying Man, the jazz digressions in Two Wildly Different Perspectives, the found sounds in The Memo, or the pure caress which emerges at different times in So I am Growing Old On Magic Mountain (the second longest song at a breath under 10 minutes), which make you smile appreciatively at the way he has worked you into position and delivered.
It may be that the best way to approach Pure Comedy is as a series of experiences rather than a single journey into the heart of a man with a few “personal demons” to deal with.
The impact will be greater, the after effects lasting – like religion, I guess.