Five years since his mushroom-induced epiphany and creative rebirth as Father John Misty – and the sterling songs and surreal, funny adventures of 2012’s Fear Fun and 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear – Josh Tillman has shrewdly realised that he was perhaps in danger of painting himself into a corner as a dark humorist. So in spite of the new album’s gag-promising title, this 75-minute-long epic is way lighter on the ironic jokery. Instead, the jumping-off point is his last record’s highlight: the laughter track-aided, Randy Newman-fashioned commentary on modern malaise in Bored In The USA.
Pure Comedy is quite a leap, both lyrically, in being an extended treatise on what it means to be human in 2017 (from alarming political change to the frighteningly rapid, evolutionary ways in which technology is affecting us as a species) and musically; I Love You, Honeybear’s co-producer Jonathan Wilson returning here to be joined by conceptual English orchestrator Gavin Bryars (cf. The Sinking Of The Titanic) imaginatively marshalling the strings and brass and choirs.
In the high-concept title track, with its echoes of John Lennon’s Isolation, Tillman views the human race as omniscient narrator, sticking the knife into Christianity and its “risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks”. The compellingly hypnotic and similarly Plastic Ono Band-like Things That Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution uses the same far-distant perspective, with its re-rendering of Carl Sagan’s image of Earth as the pale blue dot into a “bright blue marble orbited by trash”. There’s skewed hope, too, though in a vision of a kind of utopian future where economic collapse – brought to sonic life by Bryars’ pyrotechnic and hallucinatory arrangement – forces humanity to return to “our native state” and the planet gratefully cools.
It’s utterly gorgeous stuff, and its ambition is matched in the 13-minute-long Leaving LA and Birdie, where Tillman questions the great songwriters who’ve suffered avian envy, stating that from an aerial view it may be a mess down here but there’s beauty too. Meanwhile, the 10-minute So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain – thanks to its lovely, aching melody – has the distinct ring of the modern-day classic. Here Tillman riffs on the theme of Neil Young’s Sugar Mountain; but instead of pining about lost youth, he longs to slow the ageing process and remain in a world of wonder – a sadly impossible and impossibly sad notion that makes it all the more affecting.
Of course, there are jokes too – he’s here all week, folks: lampooning himself as the “oldest man in folk rock” in Leaving LA; turning meta in The Memo, his digitally fractured voice enquiring, “Do you usually listen to music like this?/Can we recommend some similar artists?” as an automated female voice butts in to say, “This is totally the song of my summer... this guy just gets me.”
In other words, Pure Comedy is quite some trip and one that lifts Father John Misty to another level altogether. It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last album this year attempting to make sense of the state we find ourselves in and the precarious future we face in 2017, but it will likely prove to be the most vivid and fully-realised.