Father John Misty, like Julia Holter, is another who has been the subject of massive hype in the last couple of years. Releasing two albums previous to ‘Pure Comedy’ under the alias Father John Misty, as well as numerous other albums as the soloist J. Tillman, and as part of the band Fleet Foxes, Tillman has only managed to reach the higher levels of recognition as the bearded cynic. J. Tillman and Fleet Foxes, while achieving solid reviews, never took off in the alternative music scene. Tillman’s luck changed upon the release of ‘Fear Fun’ (2012).
Distancing himself from the dark solo folk records of his J. Tillman days, Father John Misty began releasing big performance albums, with Fear Fun setting the trend. Characterised by multi-layered instrumental tracks and backing vocals, Tillman’s new style was relatively unique, embracing the busier folk sounds and neglecting the solo instrumentals so often found in the current folk scene. All his albums had a production type feel, which contradicted the cynical lyrics so well. This style is what earned Father John Misty his fame. However, following the release of ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ (2015), he began to realise he was becoming known for his character rather than his music. Sporting a bushy beard (a poor man’s Mark Oliver Everett, I might add), and playing the role of the worldly depressive, Tillman began to resemble a ‘cartoon’, as he puts it, as opposed to a serious musician.
“When people think of a clichéd, bearded, white-guy singer-songwriter, it’s my name that comes up. I set out to be a real human, not a cartoon character, and now I am the cartoon character…”
Tillman was clearly disappointed that he had effectively become what he hated, another member of the music ‘industry’ rather than the music ‘scene’. “I set out to be a real human, not a cartoon character, and now I am the cartoon character”, he lamented in an interview with NME. Whilst I sympathise with Tillman, whose image inhibits his ability to maintain serious discussion, its not easy to overlook the fact that maybe he is in fact encouraging the image he purportedly hates. A quick browse of his website’s merchandise finds you swamped with clothing bearing his unofficial logo, titled ‘Misty Face’.
Tillman also brags frequently about turning down a $250,000 advert contract from Chipotle, adopting the classic Bill Hicks view towards ads and celebs: they ruin your reputation as a serious artist. Nonetheless, unlike Bill Hicks (also offered ads), Misty is keen to gain credit for turning down the contract, and this begs the question: “Does turning down an advertising contract portray the same message if you subsequently advertise said rejection?” I think not.
Regardless of the reasons for Tillman’s “cartoon” image, there is no doubt that his latest album marks a move away from his earlier two releases. Discussing topics like social media and the sad state of the world, Tillman’s new album has a similar feel to Sun Kil Moon’s release from earlier this year. Judging from the reviews of Sun Kil Moon’s album, you would assume that this is a bad thing, but unlike Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon), Tillman combines these topics with better lyrics and better music. Typical of Tillman, the lyrics tend to be cynical, self-depreciating and depressive, presented with a twinge of ironic humour. This is what Tillman does best, and, only rivaled by the likes of Conor Oberst, he is one of the best on the scene. Nonetheless, Father John Misty’s album rejects the style of his previous releases, producing cut back tracks and understated instrumentals. Similarly, other tracks on the album have the feel of Elton John’s album ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’: a good thing, but not ‘Misty’. Classic piano ballads such as “Total Entertainment Forever” and “Ballad of the Dying Man” are brilliant and catchy, but they lose the trademark Father John Misty feel, and on the whole, this is a bad thing.
Tillman didn’t gain fame in Fleet Foxes or as a self-titled solo artist for a reason, and that is because it was nothing out of the ordinary. Fleet Foxes were a typical indie-folk band, overshadowed by the mainstream band ‘Django Django’. Similarly, Tillman’s solo work, though sincere, did little to avoid blending into the background in a scene of endless folk musicians. Tillman’s new style as Father John Misty suits his writing ability perfectly. It allows for his wit to shine through, and also allows him to go about his work almost unrivaled (as mentioned above). Tillman did not have to try too hard as Father John Misty to write something out of the ordinary, because Misty was in himself a character out of the ordinary. Tillman’s latest shift, therefore, risks him falling back into the oblivion.
Saying that, the album is a solid listen. Clocking in at 1 hour and 14 minutes, it is a success in itself that Tillman is able to write an album of such length without excessive fillers. Possibly, it could have benefited from the exclusion of a few of the cut back folk songs, and the inclusion of a couple of the trademark Father John Misty big production tracks. Nonetheless, Tillman’s new album is worth a listen.
Pure Comedy is an album that I don’t believe will hang around in our memory as long as his previous releases, but is good nonetheless. Three stars is a fair rating for this album and hopefully next time we see more of the classic Father John Misty.
Artist: Father John Misty
Label: Sub Pop
Release date: April 7, 2017
Play time: 74 mins
Standout track: Total Entertainment Forever