On July 22, 2016, when Father John Misty took the stage at XPN Festival in Camden, NJ, fans expected to see Joshua Tillman perform in his typically entertaining manner: swivelling his hips, heaving his guitar in the air, grasping yearningly at the mic stand and the front row of the audience as he croons the arch, satirical lyrics to his folk-rock ballads.
Instead, he rambled about the "fucked up entertainment complex that we've constructed for ourselves," positing that human brains are "half-formed," and that "stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid." One fan reported to Stereogum that after talking "semi-coherently for about ten minutes," Tillman "played a new/improvised ten-minute song that referenced various things at the festival as well as its own length," then left just halfway into his allotted stage time, having played just that song and a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire."
"I just realized that we were fucked," Tillman says now, on the phone from Los Angeles. "That there was a massive spiritual death happening in the country."
At the time, the whole thing seemed perfectly in line with what the world had come to expect from Tillman. Over the course of his first two albums as Father John Misty, 2012's Fear Fun and 2015's I Love You, Honeybear, he established himself as the mid-30s enfant terrible of folk-rock, singing about acid trips and one-night stands, and giving interviews in which he either toyed with or flat-out antagonized journalists. His variously coy and curmudgeonly demeanour often made it hard to discern when he was joking.
He wasn't joking in Camden, though.
A few months earlier, Tillman had laid down bed tracks and vocals for his third album, Pure Comedy, on which he confronts and questions nearly every aspect of humanity: technology, politics, aging, social media, our treatment of the environment, human nature and what we commonly refer to as "progress." He was still waist-deep in these concerns when, a day before XPN Fest, Donald Trump was officially chosen as a candidate at the Republican National Convention.
"I was deep inside the world of this album, and the last year had been really tough in my personal life. I was very disturbed," Tillman admits. He still sounds it.
"I was sitting at St. Dymphna's on the Lower East Side, having drinks and watching the convention. I was surrounded by my peers, and everybody was just kind of laughing and making jokes about it, and just being very blasé; ultimately being entertained by it. I just realized that we were fucked," he repeats, "that we had already lost.
"If [Camden] had been two days later, if it had been three days later, I probably could have…" he trails off. "But this was the next day. I can't quite explain or communicate how crazy it was to me that we were at a music festival, and everyone was pretending like everything was okay. It didn't seem like the time to sit in lawn chairs and drink wine coolers and listen to folk-rock — particularly my kind of folk-rock, which is so, kind of, arch and emotionally detached at times, and dismissive and blasé and whatever. I couldn't stomach it."
The "ten-minute song" he played instead was Pure Comedy's 13-minute, gently rambling centrepiece, "Leaving L.A." The song — self-described in its own lyrics as a "ten-verse, chorus-less diatribe" — is Tillman's best, most honest attempt at confronting himself yet, as he grapples with his insecurities and, startlingly, his privileged place in the world. Faced with the prospect of an "entertaining tyrant" for a President, Tillman felt compelled to play the song that comes closest to, as the lyrics go, "closing the gap between the mask and me." No jokes.
"I had to play 'Leaving L.A.' There's just nothing in that song that isn't — I mean, I don't want to use the word 'real,' but I think I said something like, 'This was all I could really play.'"
Where Tillman was "naked, getting high on the mattress, while the global market crashes" on I Love You, Honeybear's title track, on Pure Comedy (out April 7 on Sub Pop), he's facing the world head-on, taking the privileged world to task for its indulgence and shaking it awake. We're all complicit, the record suggests, but on "Leaving L.A.," Tillman situates — and excoriates — himself as the narcissistic centre of it all. It no longer feels like he's commenting from afar.
"I had written these songs and kind of had this realization that was like, 'This album can't be about humanity if there's not a portrait of a living, breathing human being smack in the centre of it.' It's like, 'Okay, we're taking this really macro view of humanity, this really kind of reductionist view; now we need to go deep into the fears and humanities of a real human being, to give it perspective.'"
It took Josh Tillman an uncommonly long time to get to Pure Comedy.
"I, more than anyone I can think of in the current music landscape, am someone who has taken a really long time and a lot of work to get to a place where I'm writing well. I've written thousands of songs since I was 14, just trying to get closer and closer to what I want to say."
Born and raised in Maryland by fundamentalist Christian parents, Tillman showed a liking for music as a child, but despite being allowed to learn drums and, later, guitar, his "only real exposure to music was Christian music." His was a childhood of what he calls "enforced devotion" to God, in which adults "would come up behind me and raise my arms for me in church." In his late teens, Tillman left for school in New York.
"When I was growing up — especially when I was a teenager — I had this sense that as soon as I got out of the house, and out of the church, then I wouldn't live in 'crazy-world' anymore. And then I got into the 'real world,' so to speak, and realized that it was just as convoluted and insane as the church. I started seeing parallels all over the place, a lot of religious thinking that people just didn't call religious thinking. That made life very isolating."
At 21, Tillman dropped out and absconded to Seattle. There, between work shifts washing dishes and building acoustic paneling alongside men in their 50s, he recorded albums of dour, humourless folk songs under the name J. Tillman. His prolificacy earned him enough renown that when up-and-coming folk-rock troupe Fleet Foxes needed a drummer, he was summoned, but the role that at first seemed like a godsend became rote; feeling less like a creative spirit than a space-filler, he quit.
Tillman finally found himself — or rather, found Father John Misty — on a California coastal trek, during a now-legendary ayahuasca trip in which he claimed he found his musical direction and his voice. J. Tillman had become a hackneyed troubadour persona; why not sing his cynical, wry truths instead?
After adopting his new moniker, success came quickly with first album Fear Fun; on the witty, self-deprecating "I'm Writing a Novel," he mythologized his drug trip origins. Critics and fans alike ate it up — the story, the epic folk-rock jangle and the sharp, self-aware lothario character at the centre of it. But even after years of experience, he was still growing as a songwriter.
"I think on [Fear Fun], I discovered my sense of humour in my writing, and that was really natural. And then on [I Love You, Honeybear], I got a little too in my head, like, 'Okay, this is my thing, so I'm going to really double down on the humour and the kind of twisted irony and whatever.'"
Not that anyone minded — Honeybear's lush arrangements and sardonic, self-aware lyrics about finding and marrying the love of his life, Emma (the two were married in 2013), earned him the "rave reviews" he sings about on "Leaving L.A." At 33 years old, selling out concert halls and gracing summer festival stages like XPN Fest, he'd finally made it.
"So why is it I'm so distraught," he asks on the Pure Comedy centrepiece's sixth verse, "that what I'm selling's getting bought?"
Tillman's Father John Misty has always toed, very finely, the line between artifice and honesty, between detachment and passion. It's made him divisive — the comments on Stereogum's report following his Camden performance vary wildly between sympathy, disgust and "PR move" accusations, and he's been called pretentious just as often as he's been called a genius — but it's also made him compelling. In the social media era, enigma is hard to come by.
Musically, Pure Comedy maintains the beauty of I Love You, Honeybear; its sprawling 75 minutes feature gorgeous string and, particularly, horn arrangements, the work of Gavin Bryars but the product of Tillman's desire "to make music in the studio, instead of just making tracks." But lyrically, Tillman transcends his past coyness here. The songs on Pure Comedy are his most honest and forthright to date, asking bigger questions and trying to answer them with more sincerity.
"In my work, you hear somebody asking these questions. On the first album, it was 'Who am I?' and on the second album, it was like 'What is love?' On this album, it's kind of, 'What does it all mean?' In the music, I think you can hear me groan a little bit, and facepalm, at asking these questions," he laughs, "but I think that's really the whole dynamic of my music. It's that dialogue between a real and abiding kind of curiosity and fascination with this whole human experiment."
The questions seem, especially on first listen, to yield dark answers. At points on Pure Comedy, Tillman imagines a future world in which Western society "overthrew the system," only to begin building it again in the exact same image. "Total Entertainment Forever" lambastes humanity's obsessive, all-consuming taste for entertainment, beginning with the opening line, "Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift, after mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes."
It's a disgusting line. That, says Tillman, is the point.
"The fact of the matter is, I don't want that to happen to Taylor Swift; that is so horrible. [But] human civilizations have been entertaining themselves in disgusting ways all through human history. We have to consider that maybe there are ways in which we entertain ourselves now that are equally as disturbing. Like, is this really what progress looks like?"
In less experienced hands, Pure Comedy could have come across as an accusatory, admonitory screed, but it's perhaps Tillman himself who comes under the most scrutiny here.
Not just part of that privileged "we" referenced throughout the album, Tillman also feels implicitly like a target throughout: he "wonders to himself, had his commentary been more lucid than anybody else?" at one point, and is a "fraud" and "con" at another. Then, of course, he's "another white guy in 2017, who takes himself so goddamn seriously" on "Leaving L.A.," the song Tillman plays as his fans, he imagines, "all jump ship."
"The human experience that I have the most access to, to draw from," argues Tillman, "is my own. So any of these ironies or whatever that I'm pointing out, I see them more in myself than anywhere else."
But it's not all darkness. It's easy to interpret a line about Earth as "this godless rock that refuses to die" as cynical on first listen, but it also scans as a paean to humanity's perseverance and ingenuity. Elsewhere, Tillman's humans "just want light in the dark," not unlike "someone else I know" (read: God).
Cynicism, argues Tillman, is in the eye of the beholder.
"You can look at that title [Pure Comedy], and it would be easy to say, like, 'What a shallow, dismissive, cynical summation of human life.' Or you look at it, and you can, I think, be liberated. I find great liberation in the absurdity of all this, because that means that you can make your own meaning."
Pure Comedy, he says, "is existential, but it really is a love letter to humanity.
"When you fall in love with someone, you don't fall in love with the parts of them that make sense; you fall in love with the fucked up, and the wounded, and the bizarre. Those are what solicit your empathy, because you recognize those same things in yourself. And it's an incredible relief when you realize that those things that make you flawed exist in other people — that if you can have empathy for them, maybe you can have empathy for yourself, too."