Father John Misty, or The Art Of Rock Pretentiousness

HQ /
Apr 7, 2017 / Music

A couple of weeks back, Father John Misty was on BBC Breakfast to promote Pure Comedy, his new 74 minute-long double album and possible magnum opus.

That event in itself isn’t particularly surprising; even musicians with an air of importance around them have to use daytime TV for promotion, but it’s also a strange and fascinating insight into a man who just can’t switch off sometimes. You can tell that the interview has been designed to show him in a more personable setting, as the real Josh Tillman, and the conversation never convincingly goes beyond directionless small talk. Yet, with discussion points as banal and lazily researched as “so you’re someone who likes to sing about stuff”, Tillman mulls over his words with a sincerity that only heightens the already awkward atmosphere. When he does make jokes to lighten the mood, his straight-faced delivery means that they sometimes land just a little too late for comfort.

None of this is really Tillman’s fault though; he’s the sort of guy who I imagine is more comfortable talking about Schopenhauer and the discontents of modern consumerism than he is engaging in early morning natter. He reminds me of the person at a dinner party who constantly turns conversations towards ‘big issues’, regardless of whether the room is in the mood for it. Although, I’m also liable to sympathise with him because I’m wary that I am also that guy. But what’s strangest about the interview is working out what exactly Father John Misty gets out of it? Sure, there’s some novelty to the whole thing that must be entertaining but I imagine that the crossover with Father John Misty fans and BBC Breakfast viewers can’t be very high.

Normal people, the sort of get up early in the morning and manage to eat three proper meals a day, don’t tend to be fans of ambitious, challenging albums that deal with big questions about modern society and human existence. Although, that’s not always been strictly true. A quick look at the UK’s best-selling albums will show a collection of ‘big’ records turning up – The Dark Side of the Moon, Brothers in Arms, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. All defiantly ambitious, and arguably overwrought, albums that attempted to make a significant cultural statement. I’m not necessarily arguing that all these albums are great but it does seem like rock music used to manage being both smart and popular; nowadays we’re lucky if it manages just to be smart.

However, at no point should this be taken as an argument that music simply isn’t as clever as it used to be, nor am I suggesting that music buyers are less interested in ‘intellectual’ music. Instead, music’s most ambitious figures have gone elsewhere. If you wanted to write a list of who the most culturally significant and socially engaged artists of the 2010s are, you’re likely to turn to Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and even Beyonce, before the likes of Coldplay, Foals, or Arctic Monkeys. Rap music easily dethroned rock music in the 2000s as the popular music of this generation but in the last decade, it’s taken the artistic acclaim as well. If I had to name the last rock album that actually mattered, in the sense that it was culturally significant, I’m probably going to have to go back to Radiohead’s Kid A. Even then, I’m tempted to push it even further back to OK Computer. Is Pure Comedy the album to change that? Well no, probably not. But at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Pure Comedy is the kind of self-styled work of art that rock music has become embarrassed with of late; one that opens with the beginning of man and ends with the imminent destruction of our civilisation. The music might sound like vintage piano rock but the lyrics are often uncomfortably topical, dealing with warring ideologies, metadata, and virtual reality. For the uninitiated, it’s like if someone asked Elton John to write a dystopian musical, assuming that Elton knows what Oculus Rift is. Meanwhile for Father John Misty fans, it sounds like an extended rift on the uncomfortable laugh track in ‘Bored in the USA’, asking you to laugh and despair equally at the future of humanity.

Of course, Tillman doesn’t just get make ridiculously bold statements like the ones of Pure Comedy without facing some criticism and the negative reactions to many of his recent performances on late night TV have followed a very similar line. If you’re not already a fan of Father John Misty, chances are you find him to be smug, boring, and most frequently pretentious. That last accusation is a point that’s hung over this article since it started and it’s an accusation that I’m not even going to attempt to deny. Bear in mind, this is man who can sincerely say ‘I think there’s a distinction to be made between entertainment and art’ in a BBC Breakfast interview. That’s not an unreasonable opinion to have but it’s definitely not one you’d expect to hear whilst you’re having your cornflakes.

At any moment, the music on Pure Comedy risks being smothered by its own self-importance. Most obviously on ‘Leaving LA’, a 13 minute centre-piece that is likely to turn off more people than it will please, which meanders aimlessly around some of Tillman’s tangentially connected thoughts without really reaching a major conclusion. From any other artists, I imagine I’d write it off as self-indulgent and pompous but from Father John Misty it also manages to be charming and at points beautiful. It helps that Tillman knows when to turn the joke on himself as well and he saves some of his sharpest criticism for his own reputation. Throughout this album, whenever there’s a moment that feels a little reductive or clumsy, like the numerous references to earth as a ‘rock floating through space’, there are a dozen that are staggeringly beautiful. Just look to the ascending gospel choir on ‘Ballad of the Dying Man’, or the album’s final conclusion that maybe everything will be fine if we can find someone or something to love. Most of the things that Father John Misty says on Pure Comedy have been said before by people who are arguably much smarter than him but in his voice, they have a clarity and accessibility that the answers to big questions often lack. It’s pop philosophy for sure but I’m not convinced that that’s a criticism that makes the album any less engaging.

I guess the point of all this then is that if it doesn’t take a genius to do what Father John Misty is doing on Pure Comedy, why aren’t more people doing it? Why have the ambitions of rock music in the last decade fallen so low that it frequently produces only nostalgia for the successes of bygone eras? Pure Comedy sounds like his record label gave him free reign, and the budget, to do whatever he wanted and they’ve been rewarded spectacularly for it. As much as the success of this album is down to Tillman’s songwriting, a big part of it is due to the backing of strings, gospel choirs and blaring horns that surround him, and make him sound like the most important voice in the world.

I don’t want to live in a world where every record sounds as extravagant and portentous as this but I also don’t want to live in one where this is the only one that does. Pure Comedy is at once ridiculously self-indulgent and beautifully profound. It’s an album by a straight white man who’s decided that he has something important to say about human existence and incredibly, that’s not a bad thing. And more importantly, it’s a defiant fuck you to the claim that there are certain things that are too complicated to talk about in songs. Only time will tell if enough people actually end up listening to Pure Comedy for it to be remembered as a significant piece of work but at the moment, it feels like an instant classic. Josh Tillman might be a pretentious arsehole who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else but if he keeps on making albums like this, that’s completely fine with me. He just shouldn’t be surprised that no-one wants to invite him round for a dinner party.

Get Volume #17 here.

Words by HQ

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