Not long ago, I joked/seriously-questioned Father John Misty‘s placement on the latest Coachella poster. I mean, I Love You, Honeybear was put out almost two years ago and Joshua Tillman has toured relentlessly since then, so was there a real necessity to have an artist that made the festival’s line-up in 2013 and 2015? In my view, every musical act should take a break from the circuit every once in a while in order to reinvent themselves and create an heavier demand/expectation from the fans. If your band makes the festival’s line-up every two years, that probably means one of two things: you release albums almost every year or you play the same setlist over and over again. Neither of the two are good options. If you release albums all the time, unless your name is Ty Garrett Segall, there’s an high probability that the quality of your work eventually starts to thin out. And if you’re all over the festival circuit performing the same songs every couple of years (hello Pixies), they start not feeling so special, even to hardcore fans. But, after all, Father John Misty’s appearance in the Valley this upcoming April has the potential to be very special. This past week, Tillman announced his third album in his FJM persona and shared the record’s title track, Pure Comedy. And, unlike most of the songs I listen to for the very first time, this one immediately hit me hard. This song just felt different.
Until three or four years ago, I only knew Joshua Tillman was the drummer for that hip indie folk group that had an absurd amount of hype which I couldn’t really understand at the time (yeah, I’m talking about Fleet Foxes). They never really grabbed my attention, and I only saw them as an ‘alright’ band. Then, in late 2014, Tillman went to David Letterman’s late-night show to play a track featured on his then yet-to-be-released album, I Love You, Honeybear. That performance instantly blew my mind and is now one of my favorite TV’s performances ever. If you hadn’t heard or watch it, please take 5 minutes off your busy day to witness Tillman’s amazing rendition of Bored in the USA. Although the majority of ILYHB is semi-biographical and centered around his life and personality (sometimes in a bit too much Kanye-esque fashion), many people can relate to this specific song since it describes the always ongoing struggles of the middle-class Western lives.
This performance also perfectly describes Father John Misty’s style in his usual live act. I firstly saw him in concert last summer and even if I wasn’t able to watch the whole show (unfortunately), that sample was enough to realize how theatrical he can be while playing his excellent catalog. Tillman often pointed to the sky in despair, gloriously extended his arms wide open and even let himself fall to the floor of the stage in dramatic fashion. Well, to put it simply, he’s just an overly-dramatic performer. Sometimes, I can’t distinguish if he’s being himself or if some of his actions are just a reflection of his artistic persona. What happens most of the time is probably a mix of both. Tillman certainly writes/sings about events happening in his own personal life but he also can’t separate his work from what’s happening in today’s society and give his personal take on the world’s latest series of actions and behaviors.
I personally like the way Tillman uses his various artistic gimmicks: the way he seems bored in the middle of the song, how he climbs to the top of the piano and yells “Save me white Jesus”, the laughing track he inserted during the “Oh, they gave me a useless education / And a subprime loan / On a craftsman home / Keep my prescriptions filled / And now I can’t get off” lines. But I mean, this is not for everyone’s taste. After he wraps up this performance, it’s clearly visible how the crowd is absolutely stunned by that point. Immediately after he finishes the song, there’s this couple of seconds of awkward silence that, to me, just scream: “Did he just fucking do that???”. I bet there were a dozen people from that crowd that instantly became Father John Misty fans but I also believe there were people there that felt some kind of discomfort with his performance. Not that this Late Show appearance was that controversial, because it really wasn’t (the award for most controversial performance in late night television still goes for Sinéad O’Connor‘s stunningly uncomfortable Saturday Night Live performance in 1992). It’s just that he can be a bit too much preachy and I completely understand those who can’t enjoy his songs because of that reason. I understand that many people aren’t always in the mood of listening to a thirty-something white dude yelling in their headphones about the rise and fall of the modern society. For example, me and my brother regularly record personalized CDs for car travels, because FM radio surely can be boring. Our CDs normally have 20 tracks: each one chooses half of the track list. For one of these, I stupidly made the mistake of having Bored in the USA as the closing track. I don’t think we ever listened to the whole song in the car. My brother always insists in skipping the song (I think, emphasis on the think, he just can’t stand the guy) but I have to be honest here: what the fuck was I thinking anyway? Father John Misty isn’t exactly a dude who has happy and fun songs to singalong in the middle of an hundred mile ride (and even if we consider some of them to be like that, Bored in the USA is not in that group).
Anyway, even if one can’t stand his obnoxious style, there’s no denying that Tillman is a natural-born performer and was destined to be more than just a drummer and secondary voice to an indie folk band. He’s way more popular in 2017 than I would have thought he could be back in 2015, when he launched I Love You, Honeybear. There’s probably people who just dig his attractive voice and grandiose showing without thinking too much into his lyrical themes. Tillman often shows great musical sensibility and that’s present in the excellent covers he played throughout the last couple of years: I really enjoy his covers of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs (watch below) and Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box but he has also covered songs from The Flaming Lips, Leonard Cohen and Nine Inch Nails, to name a few examples (the NIN cover is probably the most unexpected/strange one, but it’s great nonetheless).
But as time goes on, it seems his lyrical interests are converging to a more political field than to an auto-reflection of his daily misadventures. And he’s getting into an even more serious tone. As the title track for his upcoming new album, Pure Comedy, showcases, Tillman isn’t just fucking around anymore. Contradicting the new song’s title, he’s done using laughing tracks between lines to lighten the track’s mood. Before I start to talk about the details of this new song/album, just a friendly warning: if you didn’t enjoy his preachy tone from the previous work, don’t even bother listening to this one.
When I first listened to it, I got similar vibes to the ones I received while watching the Bored in the USA performance for the first time. Like the previous one, Pure Comedy starts as a melancholic piano rock ballad and with Tillman singing about how one’s life (the comedy) starts as a fragile, half-formed being and how each one of them are dependent of external factors (mainly their educators). Actually, he explains it in a long essay he wrote about his inspirations while making the album:
Pure Comedy is the story of a species born with a half-formed brain. The species’ only hope for survival, ﬁnding itself on a cruel, unpredictable rock surrounded by other species who seem far more adept at this whole thing (and to whom they are delicious), is the reliance on other, slightly older, half-formed brains. This reliance takes on a few different names as their story unfolds, like “love,” “culture,” “family,” etc. Over time, and as their brains prove to be remarkably good at inventing meaning where there is none, the species becomes the purveyor of increasingly bizarre and sophisticated ironies. These ironies are designed to help cope with the species’ loathsome vulnerability and to try and reconcile how disproportionate their imagination is to the monotony of their existence.
Holy shit, he’s getting this to a whole new level. I miss the times when he just wrote about spending all night drunk and totally wasted while realizing that he was just ready to become the ideal husband. As the song progresses, Tillman continues his cynical ride through the controversial themes of religion and politics, for example. All this with the visual aid of the song’s official video that is filled with all kinds of modern society representations you can think off the top of your head (sure, you can count with footage from the last US election cycle). Even Pepe the fucking Frog is there. The album’s original artwork, that is also featured in the video, is pretty damn awesome though. I also really dig the instrumental climax around the 4 minute mark (the horns are great but they can unlock a whole new level of Tillman-sponsored dramatics too).
The thing with this is: I’m not even sure what to think about the track yet. I like the song, but at the same time I reflect upon it (and his previous work) and I don’t know if Tillman just likes to be dramatic only for the sake of it. Sure, there’s been an huge amount of turmoil recently but we’re all gonna be alright at the end. Is there a limit to his ultra-preachy behavior? Are his songs just a big recipient of fresh irony? Are lines like “I hate to say it / but each other’s all we got” a bit too much? I don’t know, that’s for everyone of you to judge and answer. His album is expected to drop this next April (4/7) but he has been releasing songs every three days since last week, so maybe we can expect the record to drop even sooner than the original release date. For now, I’ve said enough about the man. Maybe after we can hear all the tracks meshed together, I can tell what I really feel about this. Let’s wait and see.
Anyway, here’s a playlist featuring some of the stuff that I’ve been shuffling lately. Take care!