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The Mortification Of The Flesh

The Apocalyptic Hysterics of Father John Misty’s new album, Pure Comedy

In the beginning was the word and the word was with Father John Misty. All things — birth, life, death, the failures of humankind, consumerism, fake feminists, real one-percenters, Los Angeles, the internet, users of the internet, metadata, capitalism, religion, and godlessness — were castigated by him, and without him nothing was impeached.

Joshua Tillman, the singer-songwriter who adopted his flamboyant stage name after leaving the Seattle band Fleet Foxes, doesn’t have a god complex, although the Book of Genesis treatment on the opening title track of Pure Comedy might persuade you otherwise. “The comedy of man starts like this / Our brains are way too big for our mothers' hips,” he sings. Consider that charming pronouncement the guiding thesis of Tillman's third studio album as Misty, which he spent two years laboring over. (The story ends with — spoiler alert — a picture of death, a “ghost in a cheap rental suit” floating in space, on “In Twenty Years or So.”) The comedy continues for 75 minutes: an extravagant, self-referential, and self-flagellating accumulation of confessions from one exhaustingly rankled man, as tired of the world as he is tired of himself.

Tillman is more interested in the afflictions of intellectual martyrs. As such, he expresses disdain for the species, which he calls, as if a precocious teenage misanthrope, “a race of demented monkeys.” He’s assumed, via a blend of messianic caricature and personal belief, the role of heretic gadfly who has no choice but to exorcise the world around him of its ills. For some this passes as “political,” but anyone who’s experienced the energy of an emphatic street preacher will be reminded of the moment when they hear Tillman prognosticate on “Total Entertainment Forever”: “In the new age we’ll all be entertained / Rich or poor, the channels are all the same.” Tillman’s got a hard job. Sometimes prophet work keeps him from making music. At a festival in New Jersey this summer, he barely performed at all, instead launching into a sermon about the human race. “Stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid,” he ranted.

In that sense, Tillman thoroughly prepared the world for Pure Comedy. He did plenty of interviews before its debut, prefiguring the project's conceptual pageantry. Singing and writing lyrics, he’s just as wordy as he is while preaching. On 2015's I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman’s last album, the loquaciousness strangely approximated the rush of infatuation. He was an odd paramour, making fun of the institution of monogamy while building an altar to his lover (his wife, Emma) the whole time. On Pure Comedy, another polysyllabic opera, the constant sermonizing seems to come from a man who’s pontificating for himself.

The sermons rail against a vast catalogue of crises; the bar for the apocalypse is sometimes comically low. There’s no hierarchy to the outrage, whether performative or earnest, because outrage alone is a sort of justice on Pure Comedy. The enraged social critic is as angry about social media accounts as he is about woman-bashing and state violence against people of color. There is a man scrolling through his newsfeed on his deathbed, on the song “Ballad of the Dying Man.” There’s also a vision of Earth ravaged by climate change, on “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” (because what else would it be called)?

Pure Comedy, which Tillman produced with longtime collaborator Jonathan Wilson, is a social manifesto that applies the flourishes of glam rock to the logic of folk music. There is piano, and soft strumming of an acoustic guitar. His subjects are the current conditions of American life, but he looks at them with worried pomposity, rather than anything like patriotism. He especially hates the entertainment industry of which he is a part — “Total Entertainment Forever” predicts that “When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes / Plugged into our hubs.” Tillman’s voice is enunciated and grandiose, sometimes sounding like Elton John and sometimes sounding like himself, or the kind of person Father John Misty has come to represent.

“Another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously,” Tillman sings wryly on “Leaving LA,” like any good flagellant would. Seriousness is Tillman’s project — both lampooning and praising serious people, none of whom is more knowingly insufferable than the persona he created. The use of seriousness as a vehicle for self-interest is a lesson white men learn from religion, Carl Sagan, and their commitment to post-modernism, if there is a difference between the three. “Leaving LA” is a palatial requiem for the masculine anxieties of a certain, racialized segment of the population that is newest to the idea that the world is not and has never been good or fair. It’s the length of a novel, and its attitude is Allenesque, which is to say, the eventual narrative turns on the singer himself. The epiphany goes on for 10 verses — “some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe,” he sings ruefully, in the eighth block — and it literally does not end, trailing off with a very musical-theater-y ellipsis.

The internet provides Pure Comedy with its most constant social adversary, even more deleterious than corporations or Misty himself. To Tillman, the theater of online communication is a total farce — pure comedy, if you will. Yet many of his ministrations sound facile, even on an excessive, grand, and sometimes eerily beautiful effort like this. “Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online,” he sings on “The Memo.” As has Father John Misty.