Over the phone from Los Angeles, Josh Tillman – the creator of libidinous, shamanic indie-folk rocker Father John Misty – says the sun's out, and with no photo shoot to attend, maybe he'll "just sit around and take selfies." Just a few days earlier, he debuted Total Entertainment Forever, a track from his upcoming album Pure Comedy, on Saturday Night Live. The song opens with the line, "Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift." The Internet reacted, well … swiftly. Tillman has since acknowledged the grotesqueness of the lyric, and clarified that the point was to confront the often disturbing ways people entertain themselves. After pointing out that anger is "the real commodity right now," and explaining the click-collecting culture of media websites, Tillman expresses sympathy for those hammering out articles about the reaction his SNL gig elicited.
"They know a song is a song, they know there's such a thing as metaphor. They know there's such a thing as using pop culture as a means to make a larger point," he says. "But they have to pretend they don't understand all that in order to create articles that serve the function that their corporate overlords have deemed is the function of their website."
Modern entertainment has ended up a topic Tillman has been pressed on ad nauseam since last July, when he ranted about the stupidity of it before walking offstage early at the XPoNential Music Festival in New Jersey. Since the arrival of Misty's 2012 debut, Fear Fun, the often contentious, frequently meta singer has made news mocking corporate folk tunes, labelling Ryan Adams's 1989 Taylor Swift tribute record "a grotesque stunt," and satirizing everything from generic pop and the music industry to himself (he has, after all, co-written Beyoncé and Lady Gaga songs).
The idea of Father John Misty as a character, a lascivious sham-mystic nonsense identity, is a red herring – there is only Josh Tillman. But he's been such a consistent and polarizing source of entertainment, you'd be forgiven for seeing the song-and-dance man as a sincere entertainer. Typically clad in a breezy, slim-cut suit, Tillman slinks around stages, wades into audiences and falls to his knees with a fist in the sky when the drama of a song demands it. But, by lulling listeners with a gorgeous melody only to confront them with something such as human extinction, he believes he's aiming for a loftier target.
With Pure Comedy, he hits it. Although it was written and recorded prior to the 2016 U.S. election, Misty's third album is almost unnervingly prescient in its political and religious commentary, no doubt informed by Tillman's devout Christian upbringing. It's a behemoth of a record, not only for its 75-minute running time, but its exploration of existential questions. On the opening title track, Tillman zooms out in his spaceship to take the listener on a tour of life on Earth, beholding the fragility of human life, bizarre religious beliefs and addiction to distraction. The point of the ride, Tillman says, is to "observe without prejudice, without emotion. Let's just take a look at these core ironies. I think when you do that, these absurdities start to emerge, like the fact that we really do just kind of worship ourselves."
Tillman pulls off the bait-and-switch with toe-tapping melody and soft, folk-rock grandeur, often recalling Elton John's ambitious piano-driven pop, Randy Newman's heavy cleverness and Neil Young's laid-back folk. In the past, Misty records have been packed with snide barbs and scathing cultural commentary that borders on the holier-than-thou, and earned Tillman something of a reputation as a cynic. There's some of that on Pure Comedy, too. But irony is not Tillman's only tool, and digging deep into his latest work reveals depths of sincerity in volumes he hasn't previously explored. The album is incredibly personal but global in scope (Tillman calls it "a love letter to humanity"). It's in no small part because of his reaction to the capital "A" absurdity of just being alive – a theme running rampant through Pure Comedy. Instead of confronting the meaninglessness of existence with something like nihilism, he chose another way.
"The best way you can come to terms with absurdity is to love someone, because you don't fall in love with someone based on this checklist of ideals," Tillman says. "That's what a sociopath does. You fall in love with someone because of their absurdity and because of their weakness, because of their pain and their shortcomings. You start to recognize your own shortcomings in another person, and you start to realize you can be loved. We love each other for these reasons. In the same way, that's why I think this is a very loving album. These are all things I love about humanity in a way that is beyond the rational."
Tillman knows it's impossible to truly reproduce the small moments in life – like when he gazes at his wife over drinks on the album's final track, In Twenty Years or So – that silence Pure Comedy's existential anxiety. But if, as he's said, art is about remembering your life, the Sisyphean urge to document those moments must be worth it.
"When you get those moments where you really feel there's nothing to fear, even though tomorrow may be completely terrifying for some new reason, it doesn't get any better than that," Tillman says. "This world will never be able to provide a meaningful counterfeit for that. This world and all of our artists will never be able to duplicate that and mass-produce it."