Father John Misty is a Pretentious Man
Father John Misty is a Pretentious Man
by William Weinstein
Josh Tillman. Father John Misty. He’s an artist that most people deep enough into the indie scene know, and if you know him, you know the stories about him. He is legendary for performing diva-like stunts that confuse, anger, and delight people. It is clear that he ascribes to some philosophical ideal, but it can be tricky for him to pinpoint exactly what that ideal is.
Here is the issue: He writes bizarre lyrics with ultra-modern references set to incredible instrumentation, and then turns around and rips what he has just said to shreds. This is an endless cycle. Tillman always has new material to mock or poke fun at, which is good for him but is exhausting for listeners. It seems like all he does is complain.
Initially, when I heard Pure Comedy, his latest release, my gut reaction went along my usual track. First, I tried to describe to myself what the album sounded like.
A beautifully organized album, that’s what. The instruments are gorgeous on the record, and the arrangements are phenomenal. It shifts from a single lone piano to a sweeping folk-inspired epic. It reminds me of Billy Joel, in many ways. Elton John, too. I thought that the music for the title track, “Pure Comedy,” was deeply moving. Tillman is one hell of a composer.
But the lyrics. God, the lyrics. This is where my usual rating went awry.
Father John Misty is a fully self-aware character who uses his third eye’s laser vision to cut down and dissect what he sees into wry commentary. It sounds like it should be amusing to someone, but it is unclear who. It is preaching. It is pedantic. It is distracting.
Father John Misty is self-aware and proud of it, to the point of arrogance. He is so self-aware that he even takes shots at himself, specifically on “Ballad of the Dying Man,” as he is obviously the only one who is enlightened enough to be up to the job. “Naturally the Dying Man wonders to himself/ Had his commentary been more lucid than anybody else?” Tillman knows he is being kind of an ass, but he does not stop. Rather than build anything up, he tears it down.
And the piano tinkles on.
His word choice is interesting, his imagery is divine, and his poetic skill is clear, but the content is nothing but destructive. The one that comes to mind immediately is the title track, but equally as divisive is “Leaving L.A.”, a 13 minute tirade against Los Angeles and the people who live in it. His poetry becomes even more dense than usual, and even he cannot keep together the music as a coherent piece. It becomes a ramble.
Another track that caught my attention was the same one that everyone has been abuzz about, “Total Entertainment Forever,” where he talks about having virtual reality sex with Taylor Swift. According to him, the lyric was merely an attempt to find a rhyme with “Oculus Rift,” but is it any coincidence that he picked a famously shallow and fake celebrity to bed down in the electronic ether? He would love this kind of analysis, I know that for sure.
If I’m being honest, I wish that something would remain sacred – not L.A., but something. The irony of that is that Father John Misty would mock me for craving something sacred in a society where all divinity and profanity are imagined, and for believing in a concept like irony these days when nobody can take anything at face value.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
I’ve read the interviews with Tillman. I’ve been a fan for years. I know who the man is. He tries not to look in mirrors, he hates capitalism, he doesn’t believe in the patriarchy, he thinks that the radical left is a parody of itself and ultimately imitates the very thing they despise.
I think the thing that bothers me the most is that Father John Misty sounds a lot like people I know, and even a little bit like me. He sounds disillusioned, and he sounds like he knows exactly how obnoxious it is to call yourself disillusioned, and he sounds like he’s going to do it anyway because he would rather use an accurate term than avoid it to not step on anybody’s toes. He sounds level-headed and fully aware that his job as an artist is his to define.
If he wants to just mock cultural norms and social constructs over beautiful melodies, he absolutely can. People will love it. They will listen in and say, “My God, you’re right, you’re absolutely bleeping right, it’s all a sham,” and then a very small percentage of those people will turn around and change the way they act because he opened their eyes. While it is annoying to keep taking shots at everything, he is even-handed. Is that fairness?
His kind of thinking gets in your head. He wants you to be critical of him. He knows you think he is insufferable. He wants you to analyze why. You can’t even hate the guy properly without playing into his hands – you can’t win this game, either, just like his lyrics say.
Besides, winning an argument is a concept we invented, with no real hold on reality unless it inspires action.
Pure Comedy satirizes everything with academic language and incredible, incredible instrumentation. His guitar skills are unparalleled. As an album, I am annoyed by it, but as an art piece, I am conflicted. Art should confront and conflict with what you are comfortable with, and this album definitely makes me uncomfortable while also being beautiful. Whether that is because of the stark contrast between the balladic melodies and the whining philosopher’s voice, or because I simply cannot look past the fact that in his public life, Father John Misty seems like kind of a jerk to his fans, I’m not really certain yet. I do think that the album derives much of its uniqueness from the lyrics. If left alone, it would be a folkish ballad album for dads. It really is just a vehicle for Josh Tillman’s preaching.
Now, I don’t like Pure Comedy, but I think that Josh Tillman’s philosophy deserves attention. He doesn’t believe in truth, or if he does, he can’t define it on this album. It is an over-analysis of everything, from religion to pop culture. My distaste for his thought process and my need to rest on some solid conclusions, to prove that something or anything is real, probably says more about me than it does about him. But it is the contrast and the similarities between us that make Father John Misty’s album so infuriatingly unforgettable to me. I cannot look past the lyrics, no matter how good the arrangement is. I know that Josh Tillman does not read reviews, but I hope he finds mine so that I can sit down with him and try to hash out what is real. Because Pure Comedy does not give me a single clue.
5/10. Equal parts majestic and enraging.