Allow me to postulate a ridiculous theory for a moment. Father John Misty and Kendrick Lamar have been waging a secret backstage war against one another for their entire careers. Good Kid M.A.A.D City was released a few months before Fear Fun, To Pimp a Butterfly in the same month as I Love You, Honeybear, and now Pure Comedy is set to compete with Kendrick’s latest effort scheduled to be released this month. “But there’s literally no similarities in their music” I hear you say. I can think of one similarity however, that being that, to my mind, no one can compete with either of them. In any genre. In this hypothetical, obviously imaginary, competition I would say Kendrick has emerged the victor of the first two encounters. But I can’t fathom a way in which he could out do Tillman after listening to Pure Comedy.
I’m racking my brains to think of an album with a vaster scope than Pure Comedy. Even Prog classics like Dark Side of the Moon seem surface level in their analysis of humanities place in the universe when compared to opener and title track Pure Comedy. The lyrics describe an absurdist view of birth and gender roles in its first verse, denigrates religious ignorance in its second and a certain head of state in it’s third. Every word is delivered with cool detachment, as if Tillman is a curious, often horrified observer. He’s above it all, and can only stand back and watch as the less intelligent among us destroy everything we’ve built. By the time the final chorus reaches its climax Tillman is describing reality as “something that a mad man would conceive”, and given the eloquence of his argument up until now it’s hard to argue otherwise.
The second track is the controversial Total Entertainment Forever, which opens with the line “Bedding Taylor Swift, every night inside the Oculus Rift”. The instrumental is reminiscent of the upbeat, sunny indie rock of Fear Fun classics Nancy From Now On and Fun Times in Babylon with its brass riffs and intricate drumming. Tillman laments that, “When historians find us we’ll be in our homes, plugged into our hubs, skin and bones”. Things That Would Be Helpful Know Before the Revolution opts for a similar tone as the title track, but tackles more closely our detachment from one another in an age where all interaction is automated. Oh, also it seems global warming has ended civilisation as we know it. Which I imagine would make interaction more strained. Tillman remains as wryly detached from the impending doom however, saying, “I’ll admit some of resentment, for the sudden lack of convenience around here”, before describing Earth as a “Godless rock that refuses to die”. Ballad of the Dying Man paints a truly bleak portrait of the insignificant nature of human life. The eponymous dying man laments that all his trials and goals and achievements will be washed away after his passing, and that the “homophobes, hipsters and 1%” will have no one to critique them once he’s dead. Tillman croons, “In no time at all this’ll be the distant past”, suggesting this could almost be a sequel to his Fear Fun classic Now I’m Learning to Love the War. It certainly discusses the same themes, the fragility of every individual’s life and legacy, and how the things we create and love in life will eventually crumble and fade.
Birdie opens with Tillman imploring a “little winged creature” to take off, and asking it if it’s “really as free as the great songs would have me believe”. It seems Tillman is pining for a more care free life, free of bureaucracy and its detriments.
Leaving L.A deserves its own paragraph. I hope one day to achieve the level of self-awareness Tillman displays on this sprawling, epic ballad. It’s instrumental is perfect and sparse, being comprised almost entirely of a string section and Tillman’s acoustic guitar. The focus is, and should be, the ingenious lyrics. The apocalyptic tone doesn’t let up, “You can hear it all over the airwaves, the manufactured gasp of the final days”. It’s almost as if Tillman is trying to outrun the end of the world, despite knowing that leaving L.A isn’t going to be enough to distance him from the coming devastation. He continues in his description of the panic ensuing in the streets, “Anything else you can get online, a creation myth or a .45, you’re gonna need one or the other to survive, where only the armed or the funny make it out alive”. The aforementioned self-awareness appears again as Tillman describes himself as “just another white guy in 2017, who takes himself so goddamn seriously”, perhaps mocking his curmudgeonly persona cultivated in the media. His early career is subjected to scrutiny as he describes how he “dreamt of garnering a rave review, just believably a little north of gods own truth, he’s a national treasure now and here’s the proof, the form of his major label debut.” The following lyrics are achingly honest, almost painful to listen to, “A little less human with each release, closing the gap between the mask and me, I swear I never do this, but is it okay, don’t wanna be that guy but it’s my birthday”. I may be spending too much time on this one song, but it’s about 10 minutes long, and there’s no chorus.
A Bigger Paper Bag may be slightly more digestible in terms of its length and subject matter. Note the use of the word slightly. It’s still primarily about the presentation and understanding of the self, I don’t know how digestible that is. Tillman does however once again cement the idea that he is an observant outsider, singing, “I’ve got the world by the balls am I supposed to behave?”. When the God of Love Returns, There’ll Be Hell To Pay, is my favourite song from the album. The piano instrumental is serene, yet driving enough to propel the song. Tillman opens with the lines, “When the god of love returns, there’ll be hell to pay, though the world may be out of excuses, I know just what I would say”, and “Let’s take you on a quick tour of your creations handy work”, before making the excuse that it’s just “human nature”, and that we “crawled out of the darkness and endured your impatience”. He accuses god of not knowing “the first thing about human beings, we’re the world’s most soulful predators” and suggests hilariously that he “try something less ambitious the next time you get bored”. I’ve no doubt that Tillman isn’t suggesting he should be the one to commune with god should he ever return, but given the fervour and fluency of his argument I would elect him as our representative given the chance. Above all else, this is the only truly hopeful song on the album, with Tillman describing how we as a species “just want light in the dark, some warmth in the cold, and to make something out of nothing sounds like someone else I know”. It’s that sort of lyric that places Tillman alongside Cohen and Dylan in my estimations.
I consider this album an unsurpassable achievement, and expect it to be my album of the year. Every line could be pored over for hidden details and meanings, every piece of rhyming wisdom praised for its intelligence, but this review is already really long so I’ll just qualify that it’s very very good and continue with my meaningless march towards death…