Note: This is the first part in a two-part *prognotes series on Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy. In an effort to keep this piece at only two parts, this new installment includes the now-deleted previous post from last week as well as additional analysis.
Josh Tillman began his career in 2003 with his debut album, Untitled No. 1. After years of being only moderately successful with solo material and playing second fiddle in an array of bands including Fleet Foxes, Tillman changed his writing voice, musical style, and stagename, resulting in a huge jump in critical and commercial success as Father John Misty. His first album under this moniker, Fear Fun, is self-described “impressionistic” fare that showcases Tillman’s talent for lyrics, psych-folk arrangements, and absurdist humor. I Love You, Honeybear, his next undertaking, made many of 2015’s year-end lists for its extremely personal view into Tillman’s romantic life and is one of the greatest love-concept-albums ever written. Father John Misty albums are more like collections of poetry set to music rather than instrumental masterpieces with some words sprinkled on top. Make no mistake, Tillman and co-producer, Jonathan Wilson, create some beautiful music, but they are always in service of the text. This year, Tillman has added to this string of hits Pure Comedy, a dim and existentialist concept album about mankind itself.
The comedy of man starts like this
Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips
After a swirl of radio signals and a dissonant piano chord, Tillman’s exhausted and awed delivery of these lines scream anything but humor. “Pure Comedy” serves as the album’s overture; it establishes the lyrical themes and motifs to be used throughout the rest of the album. Tillman refers to this track in his essay accompanying the album as “a plummet towards Earth” from space. The listener sees the species as a whole as the narrator examines various absurdities and incongruencies. Appropriately, his first critique is of the physical nature of human birth. There aren’t many better starting places.
With the infant-stage set, Tillman addresses Man’s next issue: food. The line “So somebody’s got to go kill something while I look after the kids” shows Tillman slipping out of his omnipresent narrator voice into the voice of one of the humans down below. His casual language puts these primordial issues into modern-day context and adds another layer of absurdity to them. Imagining a neanderthal telling her mate she has to “look after the kids” is quite the image. Further, Tillman is emphasizing here that over our hundreds of thousands of years of existence, our problems have not essentially changed too much or as he said in the previous stanza, “And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since”. His concluding line, “It’s hard not to fall in love with something so helpless” can apply both to the tiny baby central to the song as this point but also to the human species as a whole.
Tillman begins his first iteration of the hook injecting some motion into the song. Ironically, this narrator is criticizing humankind for thinking they’re the center of the universe and yet, for this cosmic spectator, they totally are. As he continues down the list of human flaws, Tillman addresses religion, language, capitalism, and politics all in short 1-2 line nuggets of wisdom. There’s nothing to decode here as Tillman makes his points dreadfully clear. All of this builds into the second and third chorus which surpass his previously relaxed demeanor and approach agitation and rage with the state of race. His screamed “it’s like something that a madman would conceive!” would send shivers down anyone’s spine especially after such an extensive list of grievances that are hard to argue with.
“The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive
But the only thing that they request is something to numb the pain with
Until there’s nothing human left
Just random matter suspended in the dark
I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got”
Returning to his awe-struck delivery and more global viewpoint, Tillman ends his overture on an unsatisfying note with a small glimmer of hope. With this full circle ending, Tillman comes to the same conclusion, though a gloomier version of it, that he does at the end of the album: our situation is hopeless but we do have each other.
For a track called “Pure Comedy”, there are very few jokes to be had here. It’s not by some 7th grade sarcasm that Tillman uses such a title for such a depressing opening but by a classic and simple formula: tragedy + time = comedy. A few years ago, stand-up comedian, Tig Notaro, anchored her most personal comedy set on this idea after her mother died and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Like Notaro, Tillman establishes his voice with an intensely morose thesis so that there’s nothing else to do but laugh. “Bored In The USA” from I Love You, Honeybear plays with this same idea. It seems today, more and more people are becoming aware of these sorts of existential issues and Tillman’s record, by having this comedic spin to it, is not just pointing out this issues. He is finding some way to cope with them and extend some shred of realistic hope to the listener. His view of the issues aren’t groundbreaking, but his approach is. This is a perfect overture to a thorough and accurate critique of mankind that doesn’t simply point the finger. With each successive song, Tillman examines more aspects of mankind, all with this same blunt directness coupled with true understanding and empathy.
“Bedding Taylor Swift
Every night inside the Oculus Rift
After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes”
“Total Entertainment Forever” employs a seemingly more positive tone that still demonstrates Tillman’s dystopian projection of man. While going to bed with celebrities every night may sound like Heaven to some, Tillman is implying that this married couple doesn’t go to bed together. This is Tillman’s real message: society’s current ability and willingness to provide artificial gratification in exchange for real intimacy. The next line “And someone’s living my life for me out in the mirror” tells us the future might hold more comfort but doesn’t hold any more freedom for us. In Tillman’s future, entertainment is just distraction. If we are always entertained, the real evil can take over.
This sounds of the music seem to overflow with happiness and celebration with its quick tempo and fanfares of saxophones and yet Tillman isn’t celebrating anything. Like Orwell, Atwood, or any other worthy dystopian writer, he’s taking a current issue in our culture to its furthest extreme. Tillman sees Americans as obsessed with being entertained going as far to blame our most recent embarrassing election on this obsession. Tillman says it better than I ever could in this off-script rant about Trump during the primaries:
“I always thought it was gonna look way more sophisticated than this when evil happened, when the collective consciousness was so numb, and was so sated, and so gorged on entertainment. I expected a less cliché evil. It’s not even good writing. It’s not even a good narrative.”
The song concludes with:
“When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes
Plugged into our hubs
Skin and bones
A frozen smile on every face
As the stories replay
This must have been a wonderful place”
Sadly, the historians in the song, just like the majority of Americans, don’t see any real issue at hand. Everyone seems happy, right?
On the following track, “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”, Tillman makes an contrasting prediction of the future.
“It got too hot and so we overthrew the system
‘Cause there’s no place for human existence like right here
On this bright blue marble orbited by trash
Man, there’s no beating that
It was no big thing to give up the way of life we had”
This time, the humans have followed through with their altruism and saved the planet! However, the plain instrumentation tells us that this isn’t an absolute victory. The world is now boring or in Tillman’s words, “empty as a tomb”. The protagonist yearns for the luxury and comfort that comes with destroying the planet.
“Industry and commerce toppled to their knees
The gears of progress halted
The underclass set free
The super-ego shatters with our ideologies
The obscene injunction to enjoy life
Disappears as in a dream
And as we return to our native state
To our primal scene
The temperature, it started dropping
The ice floes began to freeze”
Further contrasting the previous track, the brass section now becomes dramatic sirens and dreamy wailing like something out of Inception, but Tillman only intends irony here. There’s much humor to be had when visionary left-wing politicians and their disciples talk about an ideal world with little to no industry. Tillman is mocking those who think such a future is even possible this late into mankind’s worship of oil and business as well as those who think they could endure such a dramatic return to humanity’s beginnings.
“Though I’ll admit some degree of resentment
For the sudden lack of convenience around here
But there are some visionaries among us developing some products
To aid us in our struggle to survive
On this godless rock that refuses to die”
As the song progresses, the narrator grows more bitter towards his reality. Tillman’s hint at a resistance within this “perfect” future suggests that humanity is too addicted to pleasure to ever be able to escape it. Perhaps, extinction is inevitable.
“Naturally the dying man wonders to himself:
Has commentary been more lucid than anybody else?”
In the next track, Tillman creates a new metaphorical character, “The Dying Man”, to represent mankind’s hubris and feeble attempt to always be right. Humans, being the most intelligent animal on the earth, have trouble with not knowing things. So much of our pride as a species comes from our scientific advances and various methods of defying Mother Nature and yet, while the top of the food chain is great, it can’t give us everything. There is still so much we don’t understand about the universe and about ourselves.
Many accounts of one’s final hours include being surrounded by loved ones, forgiving those who have wronged you, and making peace with death. Not this man. In his final moments, this figurative man laments that he can’t be around anymore to correct things and tell everyone from “idiots, dilettantes, and fools” to the “homophobes, hipsters, and 1%” how wrong they are. Rather than having any peace with the universe at large, The Dying Man is still in petty feuds with mostly strangers.
“Oh, in no time at all
This’ll be the distant past
Despite a rather absurd set of complaints in verse 1 and verse 2, the chorus of this song seems to be a rare moment of genuine, unironic lamentation. Tillman forgoes his biting sarcasm for just a few bars of more direct emotional honesty for a brief, mystified glimpse into death. Perhaps, this is the real Josh talking to us or perhaps he is making a comment on the totality of dying. No matter how narcissistic or full of ego one is, death is always experienced the same way.
“Eventually the dying man takes his final breath
But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss
And it occurs to him a little late in the game
We leave as clueless as we came
From rented heavens to the shadows in the cave
We’ll all be wrong someday”
This is where Tillman drives his point home. Even in the very last moments, The Dying Man has to check on his haters. However, in this last glance over his shoulder, the wisdom finally hits him, though, a bit too late. No amount of knowledge or attempt to improve ourselves, as individuals or a species, can save us from ignorance. The universe is too large and we are too small. Tillman makes a quick jab at religion and a Plato reference and concludes with a paradoxically terrifying and comforting notion. There’s dismay to be found in the fact that humans are always wrong, of course, but if we can accept that upfront, perhaps we won’t be so let down when we confront it.
“Take off, little winged creature
It’s nothing but teens in ravines
And antics on concrete down here”
“Birdie” returns to the title-track’s tone of surrender and acceptance. The narrator, seemingly in a similar dystopian future as some of the previous songs, talks to a bird about freedom. As stated in the song, this is a common device used in pop music, opera, and musical theater. Songs like Blackbird, Green Finch and Linnet Bird, and even the power metal classic, Eagle Fly Free all imbue the birds in the songs with a true sense of freedom. They have wings, that means they can go anywhere, right? The narrator questions that notion and fantasizes about humanity’s track to true freedom.
“Some dream of a world written in lines of code
Well, I hope they engineer out politics, romance, and edifice
Two outta three ain’t bad
Some envision a state governed by laws of business
Merger and acquisition instead of violence or nations
Where do I sign up?”
These are but two options of how humanity could evolve beyond their problems; a contrasting glance to the narrator’s current apocalyptic world. The narrator continues to dream as he talks the bird away. This time, the dreams get darker and the narrator’s view of what freedom is becomes more clear.
“Life as just narrative, metadata in aggregate
Where the enigma of humanity’s wrapped up finally
That as they say is that
Oh, that day can’t come soon enough
It’ll be so glorious
When they finally find out what’s bugging us”
As technology becomes more and more advanced, we approach a world where human experience can be imitated and summed up by technology, a world where we no longer have to worry about making the wrong choices. The listener should cringe as the real future is revealed: a future where there is no more choice at all. Tillman’s demented vision evokes further existential inquiry. If we cringe at such a future now, when there is no technology that could possibly achieve this future, then we must truly value our current state of existence where we have choice. However, how free are we right now? We must ask ourselves how free we truly are, like the narrator asked the bird in the first stanza. Are social constructs, political entities, corporations, or even the biological nature of our brain, holding us back?
Tune in soon for the second part picking up from where this part left off!