Josh Tillman is the kind of musician who talks and talks—in on-stage tirades about the liberal listener’s complicity in Donald Trump’s rise, in LSD-touched interviews about why he left Fleet Foxes to be a solo singer, and on his apocalyptic new Father John Misty album, Pure Comedy, whose lyrics work just fine when read in essay format. It might, then, sound a little harsh to finger the best song on that album as the one where he finally shuts up. But the simple truth is that the last half of the nine-minute “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain,” when his voice drops out and distorted guitars lurch across the terrain, is magnificent—one of the best music moments of the year so far.
The first half of the song is pretty great too, with Tillman strumming gingerly and singing slowly, stretching the memory of a killer party into an ageless eternity on “magic mountain.” It’s a fantasy that rejects mortality much as rock music—and religion—always has. And it’s tribute to how the imagination can offer an escape from bummer realities.
The song stands out on Pure Comedy because otherwise the album is concerned with reminding the listener of those bummer realities—death, injustice, human vanity, the likely randomness of the universe—with the insistence and slack insight of an AP History ace who’s just stumbled across Stephen Fry’s denunciation of God on his Facebook feed. Pure Comedy’s lyrics seem designed to be dissected as a provocative statement: There are explicit references to Taylor Swift (as a virtual-reality sex object in Tillman’s imagined future) and implicit references to politics (“Who are these goons they elected to rule them?” one of his narrators wonders about humanity). But the album is mostly a statement of the obvious, all answers and no questions, lacking mystery and fashionably sure of its own nihilism.
Tillman’s deservedly acclaimed 2015 release I Love You, Honeybear offered a musically prismatic, begrudgingly uplifting take on unconditional love and inevitable global disaster (“what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me,” he sang). Since then, his lyrics have become even wider in scope as he’s pared his sound down to piano-rock elements that pilfer from Elton John, John Lennon, and Elliott Smith. The dare of so fully committing to a style that can scan as sentimental pays off as one-time provocation: Whether you sneered or cheered as he performed “Pure Comedy” on SNL with his lip bitten and eyes misty, you reacted.
But that title track/opener also announced the point of view that makes repeat listens to Pure Comedy so empty. Tillman sings sometimes from the perspective of a collective “we” and sometimes from the perspective of aliens regarding our species as a collective “they”—but either way, the point is that humans are morons. “Oh, their religions are the best,” he croons as a sarcastic observer. “They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed / With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits.” This is a somewhat funny description of belief, and Tillman is, throughout the album, somewhat funny. But he’s not funny enough to make his mockery of the human search for meaning—or, he might put it, distraction—seem anything more than rote.
Because it is rote, right? Is there any Father John Misty listener for whom the possibility of an arbitrary universe populated only by self-perpetuating animals is a new or particularly interesting notion? Is existence’s likely pointlessness not already tucked into the bedrock of modern life, a notion that any thinking member of a secular society has already acknowledged? Who doesn’t already suspect TV and social media to be numbing and anti-human? Hasn’t one of the goals of great art always been to reckon with—build upon, aestheticize, or reject—spiritual emptiness and fears of self-made apocalypse? What’s gained by just restating the problem over semi-ironic soft rock?
In fact, shrugging in the face of civilization’s overwhelming contradictions and cheering on doomsday is already trendy: See the actual emoji shrugs and twirling LOL nothing matters gifs that have become features of internet discourse in the last few years. For some people the election may have thrown this sensibility into an unflattering light. For others Tillman’s “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” might do the same. “One side says ‘Man, take what’s yours!’” he sings. “The other says ‘Live on no more than you can afford.’ But either way we just possess, and everyone ends up with less.” The melody is lovely and sad as he strings together false equivalencies; perhaps the song is a critique of someone so detached as to not see any stakes in the question of how to organize society (he’s too depressed to even advocate for revolution!), but there’s little to indicate Tillman meant it that way.
Tillman does, on the other hand, get that no one likes the guy who goes around calling everyone else “sheeple.” But he stays the course, pausing occasionally to acknowledge his own pretension. During the 13 minute “Leaving LA,” the demon Mara of Buddhism shows up to taunt him for being “another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously.” Tillman replies that he pretty much agrees, yet goes on to imply he nevertheless went forth with this album in hopes of “garnering all rave reviews / Just believably a little north of God’s own truth.” This is probably a joke on his own narcissism. But it also plays as a crushingly dark take on art itself, implying that all great works really accomplish is validation for their creators.
It isn’t as if great music cannot be made from very bleak conclusions. When I hear Tillman’s blasé criticism of the divine creator he doesn’t seem to believe in on “When the God of Love Returns There’ll be Hell to Pay,” I think of the fact that heavy metal on some level exists to deliver the same sentiment but with a lot more passion. When I hear him muse about the imminence of apocalypse and the terrible cycles of human behavior, I think of music that has used those ideas as a springboard to novelty: the cryptic panic of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the ad hoc mythology of Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica, or Bjork’s many paeans to science. All of these works embrace music’s potential to offer insight beyond words, while Tillman’s message is all too easily summarized: “We’re doomed.”
He does, in flashes, try to get at feelings that can’t be expressed in a tweet. The title track ends in a thread of hope—“I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got”—that he later, tentatively, picks up again for a few pretty, relatively laconic songs. “Smoochie” suggests love as a salve for despair, “Magic Mountain” achingly revels in momentary beauty, and for the closer “In Twenty Years or So,” Tillman considers the upside of pointlessness: A drink at a bar with a friend is made sweeter in light of the fact that he’s “a speck on a speck on a speck” and that soon “this human experiment will reach its violent end.” The song recalls the recent essay he wrote that counsels that the best thing for people to do is to live with gratitude for every day they are not eaten by a bear. Left unsaid is that the form such gratitude can take, the manner in which people negotiate the thought of insignificance, can be a lot more interesting than insignificance itself.