The art of social commentary is one of balance, in which said commentator must harmonize their scathing critiques of society with the audience connection necessary to have a voice at all. The path to becoming a voice of a generation requires even more alchemy, in which the message ascends beyond the perspective of a single human to become a powerful and meaningful part of the culture itself. The messages of MLK Jr. or Gandhi, are exceptional examples of this, with massive movements of people growing behind them even as the individual person faded from view. In many ways, J. Tillman, aka Father John Misty, assumes the role of this critic, bringing culture to its knees with a stroke of the pen and a strum of the guitar.
There is no doubt that “Pure Comedy,” Father John Misty’s new album, lends the most weight to the lyrical criticism that plays a huge part in most of the songs. It’s an album that begs its audience to pay attention to the lyrics first, which is somewhat aided by the musical blandness of half the album, where Misty’s sound has lost the edge and excitement present on his last two releases, “Fear Fun” and “I Love You, Honeybear.” Throughout the album, Misty has stripped his sound down into basic folk-rock patterns, running through streams of laid-back drums and simple piano chords while his voice rings out clearly with the next swipe at society.
Standout track “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” breaks this mold, its sound a fresh escape from the run-through tracks that fill up the album’s middle. Lyrically, it feels like a respite from Tillman’s exhausting nihilism, most evident on the title track from “Pure Comedy,” where he sings:
Yet on “Magic Mountain,” Tillman’s cutting voice recedes into something more graceful and personal as the narrator laments growing old, holding on to the excitement of youth and the vices that define it (booze, sex, parties). The song itself is a reference to the novel “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann, where the main character comes of age while ill at a Swiss sanatorium for seven years. In many ways the novel is a typical “Bildungsroman,” a classic story of formative events and spiritual education in a person’s life. Through this, Tillman finds the perfect imagery to comment on both his personal fears of ageing, as well as modern society’s obsession with youth and vitality:
“So the longer I stay here
The longer there’s no future
So I’m growing old on magic mountain
I’m growing old, old on magic mountain”
Another exceptional track is “Birdie,” where Tillman addresses his narration to a bird, telling the animal how wonderful it will be when humanity figures it all out, postulating possibilities such as a world written out in code or the evolution of a global culture where race and gender don’t exist. It’s hard to tell whether Tillman actually craves a solution to humanity’s problems, or whether the narrative of “Birdie” is a parody of that humanity’s wish for understanding and meaning, the subtle implication being that humanity should stop the madness and embrace the mystery of their own existence. That seems to be so in lines such as this:
Despite the myriad of voices that Tillman takes on as the enigmatic Father John Misty, the album is at its best when the singer is at his most authentic and vulnerable. The last track, “In Twenty Years or So,” builds on top of “Magic Mountain” with a rare tenderness, merging the artist’s more radical tendencies with the love and compassion that comes with being human:
But I look at you
As our second drinks arrive
The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place”
The two last songs are Father John Misty at his best. Both feature drawn-out instrumentals that highlight the album, and the simple lyrics in each song ring truer than at any point on “Pure Comedy.” In many ways, one can see the album as a unification of Tillman’s two sides: the scathing social critic and the compassionate human being; the dis-attached elitist and the empathetic human being who understands your plight. Father John Misty is not only desperate for a more balanced world, but also a personal way of confronting and understanding the harsh truths of existence. It seems that, for Tillman, a healthy sense of the comedic paradoxes of life are an integral part of that.