Sometimes to just have to let it all out. And, appropriately for a record which skewers alienation and entertainment and escapism, while also scratching obsessively at the eternal questions of existence, Josh Tillman’s third album as Father John Misty arrives in a hailstorm of words and emotions, a righteous torrent. There’s a bit of godlessness too. Quite a lot of it, actually.
Those first impressions are overwhelming. After the deluge, there is much to digest.The running time is 75 minutes. The record’s centrepiece, “Leaving LA”, – the fulcrum on which this novelistic rumination turns – runs on for 13 of those minutes. The song itself took four years to write, and was edited down from around 40 verses. The tune will not be troubling dance halls. Lyrically, it sprawls and nags. The verse is not so much a manifesto as a sermon in which the speaker – a singer hiding behind a beard – grows tired of the sound of his own voice, but can’t stop the noise. The interference comes from inside Tillman’s head and, while he bridles at the suggestion, the prevailing tone is one of disgust.
The sound is austere, but also oddly comforting. Regular producer Jonathan Wilson provides the airbags, adding an veneer of easy-listening to Tillman’s chronic discomfiture, aided by arranger Gavin Bryars, who puts strings and gospel singers where you might expect the steel guitars to appear. There is no lead guitar. When the weeping steel does arrive, as the album veers towards its conclusion on “The Memo”, it comes as a great relief. The tune is a country shuffle. And then the words start to unfurl. “Gonna steal some bedsheets,” Tillman croons, as if corrupting a Bertolt Brecht farce, “from an amputee…”
Did someone mention comedy? Well, there is a bit of that. Gallows humour, bitter stuff, a thin smile on the mask of tragedy. It is certainly clear that Tillman has travelled a long way in the two years since I Love You, Honeybear, his soulful, exuberant, melodramatic riff on romance. But if you listen hard, you might just be able to discern that – in between being mad as hell about everything and everyone, not excluding himself – Tillman remains a hopeful soul, albeit one who is in the habit of scratching love graffiti on the back of a doomsayer’s placard. We are, Tillman suggests at the end of the existential title track, “Just random matter suspended in the dark/Hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.”
So, yes, we may all be locked in cycles of futility, chasing chimeras and false promises, but we’re not going to hell, because God doesn’t exist. The purity, as much as the comedy, is Tillman’s point. Run the laughter track. Cue the gospel choir.
How did we get here? For Tillman, Pure Comedy represents a deepening of his artistry, and perhaps, a reaction to the hollowness, the absurdity of success. Certainly, there is an element of irony in the arc of the singer’s career, if we put aside his four year stint as the drummer of Fleet Foxes. Before his alter ego was conceived, Tillman had issued eight albums (almost) under his own name. Those J Tillman recordings are now regarded by their author as “fantasies… that had very little to do with my worldview or my life”. His three albums as Father John Misty, by contrast, represent a stark change of approach, prompted, Tillman says, “because of a psychedelic experience”. So, while that reverential pseudonym suggests playfulness and insincerity, the work is more obviously rooted in the singer’s life. It would be wrong to call it autobiographical, because Tillman is too self-aware to download himself without considering the ramifications. But the work does reflect the concerns and preoccupations of a concerned, preoccupied man. A man, remember, with a strongly evangelical upbringing.
The name, he says, is “a thought experiment”, and is no more significant than Bob Dylan’s, or David Bowie’s, or Nina Simone’s or Serge Gainsbourg’s. “I don’t presume that those people are singing from a persona, or an alter ego,” Tillman says. “But at some point, you do become a cartoon character in the minds of other people.” Still, he tries not to write from “a disingenuous place, where I’m trying to animate some bogus person.”
So what happened? If Honeybear inhabited the feverish craziness of love, Pure Comedy begins when Tillman and his wife, photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman leave LA, and move to New Orleans. Tillman had gone to Los Angeles in the first place, as “a sick joke” – his amusement at his incompatibility with new surroundings is reflected on 2012’s Fear Fun. By quitting town, the couple were indulging a fantasy of dropping out together. In New Orleans, they knew literally nobody. Tillman jokes that if their house had caught fire, they would have had no friends to call. They survived for two years before moving back to California.
That mood of isolation permeates the first five songs. “Pure Comedy” itself throws bleach over false idolatry (“They worship themselves but they’re totally obsessed/With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks”). “Total Entertainment Forever” is a gently swinging tune from a virtual future in which a man has dinner with his wife before retiring to his den to have sex with a computerised Taylor Swift. “When the historians find us,” Tillman sings, “we’ll be in our homes/Plugged into our hubs/Skin and bones/A frozen smile on every face.”
“Things It Would Be Helpful To Know Before The Revolution” sounds (agreeably) like Elton John addressing the apocalypse. “Ballad of the Dying Man” is a wry demolition of the false consciousness of social media – the man checks his newsfeed as he summons his last breath before departing “from the rented heavens to the shadows in the cave”. And “Birdie” is a curious, sometimes tempestuous song in which life “is just narrative/meta-data in aggregate”.
The uncommitted listener may not get much further than this. The mood is hardly lifted by “Leaving LA”, which Tillman has placed at the dead centre of the album. In tone, it is funereal, hailing the last sunrise on Sunset. There is no chorus to speak of. If you prune the lyrics to the first and last verses, what remains is the relatively unremarkable story of the singer and his missus deciding to opt for a different future. In between, Tillman satirises himself, “the LA phonies and their bullshit bands”, the polluted water (“if you want ecstasy or birth control/Just run the tap until the water’s cold”). He goes back to childhood, to a near death experience in JC Penney’s, choking on a watermelon candy, and he pauses, in verse 8 (of 10) to review his own efforts. “I’m beginning to see the end/of how it all goes down between me and them/Some 10 verse chorus-less diatribe/Plays as they all jump ship, I used to like this guy/But this new shit makes me want to die.”
It is, by any standards, an indulgent song, and self-consciously so. But as resignation letters go, it is a nagging, neurotic masterpiece. And the light? Strangely there is some. True, “A Bigger Paper Bag” continues the mood of narcissistic self-laceration, but the vanity is tempered by a degree of self-awareness. “When The God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay” is an atheist’s reckoning with a flawed creator (“Maybe try something less ambitious the next time you get bored”). “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is an oddly beautiful reconstruction of human conflict – the tune punctuated by crashing cymbals and fruit machine bleeps. “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain” has the narcotic charm of Neil Young’s “On The Beach”, and may be the best song on the record. And the concluding “In Twenty Years Or So” ends with the singer – “a ghost in a cheap rental suit” – coming to terms, almost, with his own ridiculousness. The final sound on the record is the faint tolling of a wine glass being hit by a spoon.
Overall, it’s a long, strange ride, and Joshua judges ruefully. He is not a light traveller. For every bright flicker, every fragment of redemption, he provides 10 arguments against. And yet, and yet. There is a moment on “Smoochie”, a lovely tune full of quiet hums and autumnal sun, in which the singer packs his doubts away as his lover says: “Hand me a sea peach”. A moment of paradise on a hearse-ride through hell.
Did you have an idea what you were going to do before you made the record?
Well, its coherence is no fault of mine. I write these things, and they kind of force-correct as they go on. The first five songs are fairly representative of the record I set out to make, but it very much changed as I went on. You can really hear the progress of the writing as you listen through the record, because at the smack-dab middle you’ve got “Leaving LA”. I had some instinct that if I was going to make a record about humanity – quote-unquote – I needed to have a portrait of a living breathing human being at the centre of it. Because the record starts with some really broad strokes.
There seems to be a sense of pure disgust coming out at the listener.
No, no! I don’t think of it as disgust at all. I really did not approach this record like [transcendentalist essayist/poet, Ralph Waldo] Emerson, or something like that, sitting alone, hiding from humanity. I’m part of what’s going on. There’s an idealism at the core of the record. I get called ‘cynical’ a lot. I don’t know … I don’t believe in cynical music. I don’t think there’s such a thing as cynical music. I don’t think you sit down at a piano for hours and hours at a time, trying to find the most beautiful way of saying something, if you’re a cynic. If you’re a cynic you go have a drink and say ‘fuck it’. I differentiate between people and humanity. And while I’m defensive about it being cynical or rooted in disgust, I also think there’s room for disgust. But with this record, I’ve really made a conscious effort to give the songs some levity. In “Pure Comedy” that last line has more impact than the whole six and a half minutes that precede it. That’s the point of the song: “Just random matter suspended in the dark/I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.”
There is a sense of redemption towards the end, a few lighter notes.
It is sort of relentless. There’s just so many lyrics on this thing. The thing is, I may be naive, but I still think of albums as being long enough to have a catharsis. It was the same thing on the last one. Typically I front-load my records with some disgust, I guess.
Tell me about working with producer Jonathan Wilson and arranger Gavin Bryars.
With Jonathan there’s not much to say. He’s something who I trust and I don’t see myself making records with anyone else. Gavin was like a total Hail Mary. I just got his email from a friend of a friend of a friend and sent him “Leaving LA”. That song was either going to have a Gavin Bryars arrangement or it wasn’t going to have strings. Working with Gavin was incredible. It didn’t really hit home that he was in the studio until the strings started coming through the playback. I made a conscious decision to commit to whatever he had done. I didn’t hear a demo of his arrangement; I didn’t hear anything. It was something I felt strongly about.
You recorded at United Recording in LA (formerly Ocean Way) where Sinatra and the Beach Boys worked. Did the aura of the studio influence you?
No – not on a conscious level. But being in a studio like that does give the proceedings a certain patina of formality.
Musically what were your thoughts? You’ve moved away from the folk rock character you sometimes mock.
How have I mocked folk rock?
There are are some lyrics in there somewhere.
Hahaha. I’m not mocking. I talk about this in the song “Leaving LA”: ‘But the role of Oedipus was a total breeze’. When you think about the characteristics of your average folk rock tune, I don’t think you can point to any of my songs that exhibit those traits. Yet here I find myself, in the year 2017, and when certain people think of white, acoustic, male folk rock, they think of me. I don’t really hear much in my music that exemplifies those values musically or lyrically. There’s nothing folk rock about a song like “Hollywood Forever Cemetery” or “Honeybear”. There’s not a single banjo to be heard anywhere. And the lyrics themselves are not impressionistic or austere or self-serious. So it’s very weird. There have been some country moments. But it’s a bizarre way to characterise my music. I’m not trying to split hairs, but musically this record feels like the soundtrack to something else.
The Trump song you did after the album, Holy Hell, was that a spur of the moment thing?
Yeah – it was a song for my friends. everybody was pretty fucked upon over the election. It’s funny,. I think people think I wrote “Pure Comedy” on November 10th. I wrote those “topical” songs in 2015 at least. A line like ‘and where did they find those goons they elected to rule them” – that’s not even an explicitly political line. We elect who’s going to rule us in a million different ways every day, before even getting to politics
So, other than Trump, you’re not in despair right now?
Well, I don’t know. Sometimes the most hopeful songs come out of despair. When you start writing hopeful songs you have to worry.
INTERVIEW: ALASTAIR McKAY
The June 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Summer Of Love, talking to the musicians, promoters and scenesters on both sides of the Atlantic who were there. Plus, we count down the 50 essential songs from the Summer Of Love, from The Seeds to The Smoke, and including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. Elsewhere in the issue, we remember Chuck Berry, go on the road with Bob Dylan and there are interview Fleet Foxes, Fairport Convention, Fred Wesley, Jane Birkin and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks’ co-conspirators Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise. Our free CD has been exclusively compiled for us by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and includes cuts from Todd Rundgren, Neu!, Van Dyke Parks, The Shaggs, Arthur Russell and Cate Le Bon. Plus there’s Feist, Paul Weller, Perfume Genius, Ray Davies, Joan Shelley, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Johnny Cash, Alice Coltrane, John Martyn and more in our exhaustive reviews section