prognotes*: Pure Comedy (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back to prognotes*, a multipart series dedicated to breaking down the lyrics of great concept albums. This segment finishes out the rest of Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy so if you haven’t read part 1, do it here.

The next track, “Leaving LA”, is a biographical affair giving the listener a much-needed break from the void. I won’t focus on it too much because part of it’s purpose is to venture outside the larger scope of the album and provide some more light-hearted, personal contrast. The song fills in many of the gaps left in dedicated fans’ knowledge of Father John Misty and serves as a sort of FAQ about his life. All of this human examination is taken off of the species at large in exchange for a close examination of Tillman himself.

“Mara taunts me ‘neath the tree

She’s like, “Oh great, that’s just what we all need

Another white guy in 2017

Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.”

She’s not far off, the strange thing is

That’s pretty much what I thought when I started this

It took me my whole life to learn to the play the G

But the role of Oedipus was a total breeze”

Tillman begins to dismantle the idea of a singer-songwriter and questions the need for such a cliché figure in perilous times. Further, like Dylan and Cohen before him, the song confirms Tillman’s place in today’s culture as more of a poet than a musician. For the next half of the album this trend into Tillman’s view of himself continues. The following songs also follow a trend of becoming more fragmented and less direct.

“Dance like a butterfly and drink like a fish

If you’re bent on taking demons down with only your fist

And I’ve never known anyone who could lose himself in a bigger paper bag”

“A Bigger Paper Bag” is one of the most open ended tracks on the album. Many lines leave many different interpretations as viable possibilities. For example, here in the first stanza, Tillman is clearly talking about his relationship with alcohol. However, as the song progresses, it becomes more broadly focused on narcissism in general. Therefore, the “paper bag” here could be one to keep alcohol hidden in or one to wear over one’s face in shame. The next line is similarly open-ended:

“The weaker the signal, the sweeter the noise

Hunching over an instrument that you now employ

Like the Starvation Army needs a marching piano in the band

Are you feeling used?

I do”

Signal and noise are both statistical terms but it is unlikely Tillman is strictly referring to statistics because in the next line he’s talking about instruments. With electric instruments, if a signal is weak, you may have a rather quiet instrument or have trouble with feedback. Either way, this could be seen as “sweeter noise”. Further, Tillman could still be talking about intoxication here. If one is too drunk, their “signal”, or general awareness, could be weak, while their experience could be very “sweet”. The chorus centers the song’s central theme of narcissism showing that delusions of grandeur often stem from insecurity.

“Oh, I was pissing on the flame

Like a child with cash or a king on cocaine

I’ve got the world by the balls

Am I supposed to behave?

 

What a fraud

What a con

You’re the only

One I love”

The song limps along with more loosely connected ideas about loving oneself too much with Tillman using himself as the prime example. In a reference to his own past (or possibly current) relationships, Tillman says:

“It’s easy to assume that you’ve built some rapport

With a someone who only likes you for what you like yourself for

Okay, you be my mirror but remember that there are only a few angles I tend to prefer

I’m only here to serve”

The image of a mirror evokes the earliest Greek origins of narcissism. It’s no stretch to think that Tillman’s tendencies in his personal relationships might also extend to his relationship with the spotlight. Perhaps this attempt at highlighting his more unfavorable traits is an attempt to remedy how own dishonestly. Overall, this track works much better as a bridge to more potent and pointed songs than it does on its own due to its more distorted approach. His next track zooms back out to the whole of humanity.

“When the god of love returns

There’ll be hell to pay

Though the world may be out of excuses

I know just what I would say

Let the seven trumpets sound

As a locust sky grows dark

But first let’s take you on a quick tour of your creation’s handiwork”

Not unlike Bo Burnham with his song, From God’s Perspective, Tillman aims his criticisms at the Judeo-Christian God as if he was a real person. This approach most likely stems from Tillman’s extreme religious upbringing. In fact, Tillman’s first album he bought on vinyl was On Fire! by Christian hard rock band, Petra. In his twisted fantasy, the Christian personification of death, the pale horse, is disgusted by what Earth has become to which the humans reply:

“And we say it’s just human, human nature

This place is savage and unjust

We crawled out of the darkness

And endured your impatience

We’re more than willing to adjust

And now you’ve got the gall to judge us”

Tillman is obviously an atheist these days and yet he has created a fantasy scenario where he finally confronts God. However, this track doesn’t seem angsty revenge at a fake deity who controlled so many of his formative years. It seems like after Tillman abandoned religion in his search for a deeper truth about humanity, he realized how hopeless things really are. Really, Tillman is wishing there was God. At least, then, there would be someone to blame. It would be much easier to cope if we were designed to be so greedy and eager to hurt each other. With this approach, he can kill two birds with one stone: he can critique the absurdity of religion and mankind.

When my personal demons are screaming
And when my door of madness is half-open

You stand alongside
And say something to the effect
That everything’ll be alright soon, smoochie

 

Chaos attends to creation

And when the shadows inside me vie for attention

 

You stand alongside

And say something perfect like “concealment feeds the fear.”

And hand me a sea peach

And say, “Come, come over here, smoochie.”

These are the full lyrics to the next track, “Smoochie”. At first glance, this song seems to be a short B-side to Tillman’s last album, I Love You, Honeybear with its open-heart romance and specific references to Tillman’s wife. However, this track is actually placed rather perfectly on the back half of Pure Comedy. Tillman spent “Leaving LA” and “A Bigger Paper Bag” critiquing himself and showing his flaws but now he turns to his better half for a soothing, palette-cleansing track about the biggest positive in his life. Like many others, Tillman can’t find enough things about humanity and himself that he would change and yet he can still find perfection in his significant other. For extra depth, this sappy confession to his wife is accompanied by a creepy, down-tuned voice singing along with Tillman. This most likely represents the constant undercurrent of darkness that Tillman is referring to in the song or his “personal demons”. Beyond that, there’s not much more to this track. He loves her plain and simple. Ultimately, he’ll come back to this love in wake of all his existential anxiety.

One side says

“Y’all go to hell.”

The other says

“If I believed in God, I’d send you there.”

But either way we make some space

In the hell that we create

On both sides

 

One side says

“Kill ’em all.”

The other says

“Line those killers up against the wall.”

But either way some blood is shed

Thanks to our cooperation

On both sides

On both sides

And after all that nice, warm love, we’re right back in the thick of it. Tillman, while mostly very liberal, establishes here that his satire is not strictly partisan. This track, true to form, is ironically-titled. There’s much more in common with extremists on opposite sides on the political spectrum than those people would like to admit to. Tillman asserts that this childish team-picking is really just “cooperation” towards our own demise.

But either way we just possess

And everyone ends up with less

On both sides

On both sides”

“Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is right in-line with the rest of the album. Our downfall is inevitable and it is our fault. Tillman is showing off how good he is at delivering maximum impact and clarity with minimum words.

“I’m gonna steal some bedsheets

From an amputee

I’m gonna mount em on a canvas

In the middle of the gallery

I’m gonna tell everybody

It was painted by a chimpanzee

Just between you and me

Here at the cultural low watermark

If it’s fraud or art

They’ll pay you to believe”

For the next track, “The Memo”, Tillman turns his sights towards the entertainment industry. Tillman is far from a newbie when it comes to messing with the established music industry. Here, his main thesis is that the established industry steps all over anyone to sell anything they can. Lines like “painted by a chimpanzee” and “cultural low water mark” indicates that this first verse is about modern art culture. In parallel to the previous song, the last line of this stanza implies that the consumers of modern art are just as to guilty as the creators of it. They understand the lie and are willing to pay to believe in it.

“I’m gonna take five young dudes

From white families

I’m gonna mount ’em on a billboard

In the middle of the country

I’m gonna tell everybody

They sing like angels with whiter teeth

But just between you and me

They’re just like the ones before

With their standards lower

Another concert-goer will pay you to believe”

Clearly, Tillman is talking about One Direction or similar boyband types here. Again, the consumers here are just as complicit in the fraud as the producers of the content.

“Oh, caffeine in the morning, alcohol at night

Cameras to record you and mirrors to recognize

And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time

Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online

And friends it’s not self-love that kills you

It’s when those who hate you are allowed

To sell you that you’re a glorious shit

The entire world revolves around

And that you’re the eater, no not the eaten

But that your hunger will only cease

If you come binge on radiant blandness

At the disposable feast”

Tillman exits the point of view from the first part of the song and switches to his own voice here. It may start off a little preachy and seem out of touch in the first few lines but Tillman isn’t just complaining about how kids are on their phone all the time. He’s showing us how we allow ourselves to be controlled. Social media is not an inherently bad thing. Loving yourself is not wrong. However, with the giant industry that social media has become and narcissistic pricks becoming president, it’s important to understand what you’re being sold and why you do the things you do. This is all met with a building storm in the changing chords and dreamy instrumentation.

“(You’re enjoying the chill winter playlist)

Just quickly how would you rate yourself

(? Indie Brunch)

In terms of sex appeal and cultural significance?

(Irony, irony

Blo blo blo blo blo blo blo)

Do you usually listen to music like this?

(Just one more mile, you can do it again)

Can we recommend some similar artists?

(This is totally the song of my summer)

Are you feeling depressed?

(This guy just gets me)

But your feedback’s important

To us

(Music is my life)”

The song falls apart with tiny snippets of non-sequiturs taken from popular culture first spoken in a Siri-esque robot voice then by real human beings. Over this, Tillman sings a few lines that sound like the end of a Pandora survey. These two elements played together with the sparse instrumentation create an unsettling atmosphere. The song has gone from mid-paced, folk ditty to pure Orwell pretty fast.

“Gonna buy myself a sports team

And put ’em in a pit

I’m gonna wage the old crusade

Against consciousness

All I need’s a couple winners

To get every loser to fight in it

Keep the golden calf

Just need the bullshit

And they won’t just sell themselves into slavery

They’ll get on their knees and pay you to believe”

And just like that, we’re back! Tillman continues with the original structure of the song and evokes gladiator imagery when talking about the modern sports industry, an obvious and apt comparison. Again, Tillman is driving home the point that companies are evil for creating content that attempts to control people, but people are just as willing to buy into it. Sports is another perfect example of that. Often times, sports teams are nearly identical to each other except for a few idolized stars, the city they are from, and the colors. It’s not even Pepsi vs. Coke, it’s Red Texas Coke vs. Blue New York Coke. It’s brand loyalty at it’s most pure. With a clever play on words between “golden calf” and “bullshit”, Tillman is off to the next track.

“That was the last New Year I’ll ever see

And I wanna stay on that magic mountain

With lost souls and beautiful women

I drank some of Farmer’s potion

And we were moving in slow motion

 

The slower, the better

The slower, the better

‘Cause there’s no one old on magic mountain

There’s no one old, old on magic mountain”

 

“The wine has all been emptied

And smoke has cleared

As people file back to the valley

On the last night of life’s party

These days the years thin till I can’t remember

Just what it feels like to be young forever

 

So the longer I stay here

The longer there’s no future

So I’m growing old on magic mountain

I’m growing old, old on magic mountain”

Time stops for “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”. It feels like old Father John Misty, like it could be a B-Side to “Funtimes In Babylon”. Tillman lets go of the politics, the religion, and everything else except him and what brings him the most basic joy. Up until this point, the album has looked through humanity through every unflattering lense and this was no easy task for Tillman to write. Here, he just wants to go back to how things were. This is Tillman is blissful denial. A simple song for a simple yearning and one of the most heartbreaking songs on the album. For the next track, after an album of zooming out to see the entire Earth and every human on it to zooming in to see the inner workings of Tillman himself, we end on a brief moment of hope found in an everyday situation.

“What’s there to lose

For a ghost in a cheap rental suit

Clinging to a rock that is hurtling through space?

 

And what’s to regret

For a speck on a speck on a speck

Made more ridiculous the more serious he gets?”

“I Went To The Store One Day” set up some pretty high expectations for Father John’s finale. Tillman ponders the central theme of the album again. He thinks about how small we are, how insignificant our lives are, and what it all could really mean. But then, he thinks about himself thinking about it and how ridiculous that is. He’s lost in his thoughts.

“Oh, it’s easy to forget

 

Oh, I read somewhere

That in twenty years

More or less

This human experiment will reach its violent end”

The dread creeps in. Tillman is so fascinated by the end. The entire album up until this point has been about how doomed and flawed humanity is. This stream of consciousness doesn’t have the poet’s polish on it like most of the album does. He’s simply thinking out loud. Then we realize where he is and reality sets back in.

But I look at you

As our second drinks arrive

The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place”

And it’s a miracle to be alive

 

One more time

His favorite place in the world: with his wife with drinks and music playing. The dread breaks and he understands something new.

“There’s nothing to fear”

With his true love by his side, the king of irony, has succumbed to the biggest cliché of them all like an episode My Little Pony or my favorite Black Album track. Amidst all the chaos of the world, the hypocrisy, the hatred, the misunderstandings, the blatant stupidity, the pain, the inequality, the only thing to do is laugh at the absurdity and accept the void. Our reality, as Tillman has spent the last hour showing us, is too absurd to try to fix or make sense of. You can only accept it and find comfort in the things around you. The track perfectly resolves all the existential anguish of the album and leaves the listener absolutely awestruck. Good luck listening to this without getting still and tearing up. A perfect end to a perfect album.

If you read this far, you are now my biggest fan and I appreciate it so much. Thank you for diving into this album with me. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.