Negativity feels like it is at an all-time high right now. One has to assume that things may have been worse when, say, Europe faced the Black Plague or, you know, maybe, possibly, perhaps, in the pre-Civil War South. But everywhere we look, it seems like people think this is the worst it’s been.
I’m not immune to this; one look at Twitter, and I’m convinced everything is headed in the wrong direction. You could assume this is my own fault for following mostly liberal outlets, but the inability to see the forest for the trees is a bipartisan failing. Pessimism is for everyone, the great unifier.
Father John Misty’s Josh Tillman has a reputation in some circles for feeding off that negativity. When he broke out in 2012 with Fear Fun, he was riding a wave of goodwill from his four years as the drummer for Fleet Foxes. He garnered acclaim, but he also created skeptics. Tillman had adopted a cynical perspective toward pop culture and toward the world in general, limiting his fan base to the hipster world where counterculture is the culture. 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear rectified this to a certain extent, with its honest exploration of committed love, but Tillman still maintained a persona steeped in cultural ennui, continuing to alienate folk purists.
His new album, Pure Comedy, forces you to consider that maybe it’s not a persona and he really means it. That is, maybe the cynicism of Father John Misty is healthy rather than a façade, a means to satisfaction rather than the end of it.
I didn’t want to like Father John Misty. Cynicism is something I struggle with; I perpetually want to believe the best about people and the world despite the fact that I don’t. Listening to Father John Misty is like being forced to hear the thoughts that I try not to think.
But as my beliefs have strengthened in their conviction, listening to Tillman’s music is more rewarding if not less challenging. He’s always been funny and clever, but now I appreciate that rather than resent it. On “Total Entertainment Forever”, when he riffs on “bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift”, I hear it as the self-aware joke it is rather than a caustic remark. When he goes on to say, “No gods to rule us / No drugs to soothe us / No myths to prove stuff / No love to confuse us,” I’m confronting the fact that I too believe this is where we are headed as a society. Before, I would have refused to acknowledge it.
This growing appreciation for Tillman’s mind comes even at the expense of my own. I’m a Christian, so there’s definitely some cognitive dissonance at work when I listen to two of my favorite songs on the album. On the title track, Tillman lets loose his most passionate vocal delivery lamenting and laughing about the selfishness of man, but he also declares,
Oh, their religions are the best
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits
And on “When the God of Love There’ll Be Hell to Pay”, Tillman sings about the absurdity of a loving deity creating a world of suffering:
Oh, it’s just human, human nature
We’ve got these appetites to serve
You must not know the first thing about human beings
We’re the earth’s most soulful predators
Try something less ambitious next time you get bored
Maybe the real reason I’m so willing to embrace Father John Misty is because he’s created a style of music that I would want to make if I were at all musically talented. Tillman’s lyrical wit is what makes him such a singular artist, but there are definite touchstones for his music, somewhere back in the 1970s. There’s a little bit of Billy Joel’s voice when Tillman allows himself to really howl about a subject, but the closest analog might be Randy Newman. Newman knew his way around a chorus, but he’s also always had a penchant for wordy verses that somehow still manage to roll off the tongue.
The music is not my main draw to Pure Comedy though. Tillman’s philosophical perspective is so different from where mine is and yet so like the road I took to arrive at mine. I’m attracted to the experience of finding myself completely empathizing with Tillman’s cynicism but then having to remind myself, “Wait. I don’t believe that.”
This sequence used to repel me, which is only human: nobody has any perspective but their own, and it is hard work to try to understand anybody else’s, let alone accept it as valid. It helps that Tillman seems to be less above the rest of the human race on Pure Comedy than on past albums; his ire now appears to include himself and is all the sharper for it. And Pure Comedy isn’t pure cynicism. The perspective on which Tillman ends is that the only thing that makes this world worth it is each other. Surely he will forgive me some cynicism of my own, but that sounds like pure comedy.