Father John Misty (né Josh Tillman of Fleet Foxes) has been on a hot streak since he released I Love You, Honeybear in early 2015. Not a week passes without an outbreak of Misty Mania in the established anti-establishment music press—NME, Stereogum, Pitchfork, etc. He covers Taylor Swift and people go crazy. Magazines pass along his rambles about the entertainment industry and married life and microdosing LSD (the cutting-edge narcotic fad of our Brave New Elites). He has been an enfant terrible, shaking his fists and (supposedly) stealing magic crystals, both feeding on and mocking the LA-Brooklyn axis of American entertainment culture, an axis that loves nothing so much as someone who seems to hate it.
There was something to the hype. I Love You, Honeybear was in fact a great album, a hyper-produced bouquet of flowers whose scent was an intriguing mix of ghost orchid cynicism and baby’s-breath New Sincerity. Love, alcohol, the Crash of 2008, marriage, unemployment, weed paranoia, prescription meds, self-loathing—if you were under 35 at any point in the past ten years, at least one song on the album connected with you. For once, the media darling seemed to live up to some of the hype.
So it was distressing to discover, after another round of breathless hype, something very unwelcome about the new album Pure Comedy: Father John Misty has turned into Billy Joel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Lounge music has its place. But for an album that claims to attack the human condition head-on and has been compared to Infinite Jest by critics, it comes up a little short.
On the musical front, it's simply boring. Tillman plies his smooth vocals and the pianos ripple, and the producers find exactly the right balance for the rhythm guitar, but there's nothing half so interesting or adventurous or just fun as the soaring faux-country steel guitars on I Love You, Honeybear‘s eponymous track or the lush mariachi arrangement on "Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)" or the Age of Adz-era Sufjan Stevens ripoff "Strange Devices."
Sure, there are strings and keyboards and horns and it all sounds very slick and expensive—but then, so does Chicago 17. Even "Total Entertainment Forever," the single that launched a thousand pearl-clutchings and is by far the most enjoyable song on the album, features Tillman going full Midori'n'Ludes yacht-rock. At least one song, "Leaving LA," is unbearable. It seeks to capture the bleak ethos of his last album’s beloved "Bored in the USA." But "Bored in the USA" has a tune and is four-and-a-half minutes long, while "Leaving LA" is twelve minutes of repetitive moaning. Maybe it's a real jam if you're microdosing LSD, but for the chemically unaided it's tiresome.
And then there are the lyrics. Father John Misty took the wrong lessons from the success of I Love You, Honeybear. "Bored in the USA" and "Holy Shit" directly confront politics, economics, and religion. Other songs from that album obliquely address the same. Yet these are only interesting in the context of the poetic "I," as the background for actual real live personal people doing real live personal people things.
"Holy Shit" isn’t about "Ancient holy wars / Dead religions, holocausts / New regimes, old ideas." In fact, in the words of a famous entertainer, that's the joke: "What I fail to see is what that's gotta do / With you and me." Ditto for "I Love You, Honeybear": "Everything is doomed / And nothing will be spared / But I love you, honeybear." Nobody actually cares about derivatives and climate change and Lehman Brothers and Thomas Piketty. What we care about is what we've always cared about—Eros and Dionysus and our families. All the rest only matters insofar as it touches these things.
But on Pure Comedy, all that human stuff like love and alienation and even drugs take the back seat because Josh Tillman has something to say. The fact that his something to say has already been said, even unto death—religion is bad, Donald Trump is bad, the entertainment industry is bad, the universe is heartless, Josh Tillman is smart—does not stem the tide. (And what a tide. I Love You, Honeybear clocked in at a trim 45 minutes. Pure Comedy goes on (and on) for nearly an hour and a quarter.)
Tillman still has his moments. "Total Entertainment Forever" is funny and cheeky, evoking decadence and indeed a particular mid-'90s literary monument ("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"). But the "smart" asides often sound like mere scolding ("Pure Comedy": "Now the miracle of birth leaves a few issues to address / Like, say, that half of us are periodically iron deficient"), and the "personal" stuff is mostly annoying "look-at-me" antics ("Leaving LA": "So reads the pull quote from my last cover piece / Entitled ‘The Oldest Man in Folk Rock Speaks' / You can hear it all over the airwaves").
"Pure Comedy" is not an atrocious album. It has one or two fun ditties and most of the intervening filler is inoffensive. Yet one cannot help but feel that maybe, if Tillman had stuck to love and glockenspiels instead of politics and philosophy, it could have been a better album. It could even have been a rather good one. We'll never know.