Fleet Foxes will play the Wilma next week, and former drummer Josh Tillman won't be with them. By the time he left the band in 2012, his relationship with frontman Robin Pecknold had "fully deteriorated," in Pecknold's words. Since then, Tillman has performed as Father John Misty—a semi-satirical, dissipated persona I would describe as an exaggerated version of how history remembers Lindsey Buckingham.
His first two albums as Father John Misty, 2012's Fear Fun and 2015's I Love You, Honeybear, established the character as a debauched rocker manqué, longing for human connection and real feelings even as he fled into irony. But on his new album, Pure Comedy, Father John Misty is something different. The critique of a drugged-out, smugged-up society in danger of regarding itself to death is even more pointed than before, but suddenly our narrator is in on the joke. Where Father John Misty used to be the kind of character Father John Misty criticized in song, Pure Comedy makes him a voice in the wilderness, the kind of wise contrarian more at home in the pages of H.L. Mencken than Topanga Canyon.
That's a lot of concepts for one folk act. Musically, though, Pure Comedy seems designed to shift focus to the ideas. Where I Love You, Honeybear was dynamic and variable, Pure Comedy is pretty much all torch songs. The recording is clear and simple in a way that privileges the vocals over the instruments. The mellow piano arrangements and Tillman's phrasing create an easy-listening sound that contrasts with the pitch-black lyrics, putting the new Father John Misty somewhere between Jackson Browne and Nick Cave.
It's a weird combination, suited to an artist who seems to be reevaluating the relationship between his persona and himself. On "Leaving LA," a 13-minute career introspective set to meandering strings, he sings "a little less human with each release/closing the gap between the mask and me." The incompletion of this sentence leaves unclear whether it's a lament, a goal, a fear—what? Is Tillman becoming Father John Misty, or is Father John Misty becoming Tillman?
- Where Father John Misty used to be the kind of character Father John Misty criticized in song, Pure Comedy makes him a voice in the wilderness.
The critical force of the songs seems to be overwhelming the ironic force of the character. Tillman is clearly troubled by the trajectory of the United States in 2017. On "Twenty Years or So," he sings that "in 20 years, more or less, the human experiment will reach its violent end." On the last album, that's the kind of sentiment Father John Misty would have used to lure an art student into the tub. But on Pure Comedy, the nihilism fuels not parties, but despair. It is a sad album, and while it is often beautiful, it is rarely fun.
Should it be? The time for rock stars to revel in exaggerated performances of their own debauchery might be over. It's 2017; probably, none of us should be having any fun at all. We should be smashing cell phones and wringing vital nutrients from dead billionaires while we still have time to turn this thing around. But are glum torch songs the soundtrack for that endeavor? At a moment when real life would read like satire were it not so hideously unfunny, whither the satirical folk perverts?
Nobody knows, and Pure Comedy sounds less like a masterpiece than Tillman's best guess. Still, it is touching and pathetic, in the strictest sense of that word. It sounds like a transitional album, but it makes the listener wonder where Father John Misty might go next. Where we have been together may be strange enough already.