On his 2015 breakthrough album, I Love You, Honeybear, Josh Tillman (better known as Father John Misty) waxed poetic about capitalism and middle-class malaise, but mostly he explored romance, monogamy and his own recent marriage. The Tillman of Pure Comedy, however, is in full cultural-criticism mode, analyzing politics, celebrity obsession, social media, the environment and the impending doom of humankind. Yes, when stacked next to each other, those themes have a whiff of pretension that will likely rile his detractors. But, after 75 sprawling minutes, Tillman will have fans believing his gospel.
Tillman wrote these songs in 2015, when the words “President Trump” still seemed like a far-fetched punchline, so Pure Comedy seems unsettlingly relevant. On the title track, which is also the opener and thus sets the mood for the entire record, Tillman croons over bare-bones piano, “Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?” before roaring horns rush in like a chorus of angry men and women wielding pitchforks and protest signs.
The scathing critiques continue on Total Entertainment Forever, which features the cringeworthy opening “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift.” Tillman imagines a dystopian future for our overly plugged-in generation alongside the album’s jauntiest rhythm section. On Ballad Of The Dying Man, he sings from the perspective of an insufferable message-board commenter who revels in calling out the “homophobes, hipsters and 1 per cent, the false feminist he managed to detect.”
Sonically, the album consists of simple piano and acoustic guitar, supplemented by lush orchestral instrumentals courtesy of composer Gavin Bryars. This leaves Tillman’s cynical views always at the forefront. No doubt some of the album feels overly sanctimonious, especially coming from a 35-year-old white dude who regularly spouts feminist theory in interviews. But Tillman is neurotically self-aware of how he comes across. In the 13-minute Leaving LA, he slips in, “Oh, great, that’s just what we all need, another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously.” And yet Tillman’s prophetic songwriting makes Pure Comedy one of the first — and best — post-Trump albums in what’s sure to be a long line over the next four years.
Top track: Total Entertainment Forever
Father John Misty plays the Royal Alexandra Theatre on May 5 and 6 and Massey Hall on September 18. See listing.