Tragicomedy of the highest order in Father John Misty's Pure Comedy

As a conceit, Father John Misty is much sexier, smarter and more quote-worthy than the actual person called Josh Tillman - or so it seems.

The million-dollar question is: Where does the persona end and where does the man begin? The answer is hinted at in the erstwhile Fleet Foxes drummer's third outing as the slithery, hipster trickster.

Taking off from the satirical gem, Bored In The USA, from his 2015 breakthrough album I Love You, Honeybear, Pure Comedy blooms into a full-blown examination of post-truth America and the price of authenticity, complete with canned applause and TV voice-over.

In playing Father John Misty, Tillman has found himself. The troubadour has found the portal to exorcise inner demons and public grievances and get away with it.



    Father John Misty

    Sub Pop

    4/5 stars

Everything comes to a head in the 13-minute centrepiece, Leaving LA. The meta-textual essay, or what he calls "some 10-verse, chorus-less diatribe", zeroes in on imagined fans' reaction and his reputation ("Oh, great, that's what they all need/Another white guy in 2017/Who takes himself so godd*** seriously" and "I used to like this guy/But this new sh** makes me want to die").

The self-flagellation may be hard to stomach for some, if not for the fact that it is played off against some of his sturdiest melodies, dipped in melancholy strings and deferential strums. His voice, too, is fabulous. A clarion of startling clarity, it rings true.

Recalling the effortless pop flourish of 1970s Elton John and acerbic literacy of Randy Newman, Tillman nevertheless sounds absolutely contemporaneous.

The album's title track, unnecessarily prefixed by a random TV theme, is actually a jeremiad dressed up as an austere, late-night piano dirge. "Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them/What makes these clowns they idolise so remarkable," he opines on the state of the union, pre- or post-election we do not know. You sway, you hum, you cry. This is tragicomedy of the highest order.

Depending on your appetite for emotional offal, you either relish the horror show or get increasingly shell-shocked. "What a fraud/What a con/You're the only one I love", he looks at himself in A Bigger Paper Bag, an ugly-beautiful chamber piece sung with sincerity and possibly a nod to Paper Bag, a ragtime ditty by Fiona Apple.

The vacillation becomes increasingly macabre. In The Memo, he takes aim at high-art shenanigans, then at himself. The piano ditty transforms into a waltz as he moves from staging a gallery fraud ("Gonna tell everybody it was painted by a chimpanzee") to answering a pop-culture questionnaire ("how would you rate yourself/In terms of sex appeal and cultural significance").

By the time one comes to the end, well, "In Twenty Years Or So", Tillman realises all this may come to nought. "For a speck on a speck on a speck/Made more ridiculous the more serious he gets?" he rhymes, as the gentle piano slowly travels into outer space.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2017, with the headline 'Tragicomedy of the highest order'. Print Edition | Subscribe