There’s a surprising level of motivic mastery within these deceptively basic harmonic structures, and it combines Tillman’s oozing passion to create a genre-defining album nothing short of inspirational.
A work as intricate, introspective, and accessible as this rarely finds truly engaging melodies that hold their own power. Pure Comedy is simply one of those rare, once in a lifetime works that does so. Melody can often be the weakest link in music that’s very personal, but Josh Tillman takes a strong approach in a different direction that proved very successful. Not once did he let down his guard and choose to simply ride the emotional wave with his vocal lines. He went above and beyond with a soaring vocal register, great chorus arrivals, and unwavering presence within each song to add positively to the emotion and direction. It was risky, since music of this down-to-earth intention doesn’t always mix well with any type of extravagance, but the risk certainly paid off. The song “Total Entertainment Forever” had an especially surprising energy to its melody along with a strong shape. The pacing of each song, while not necessarily driven by melody, was further enhanced by Tillman always being able to say what he had to say within the song’s confines. I enjoyed the long but understandable forms within this work, with melody always being the element that brought the song back home no matter where it travelled. I do wish there had been more succinct motivic arrangement within the melodies in order to become a more memorable and impactful force within each song. Only a couple of songs had that, and it was only out of immense repetition. That would really be the next step from great to incredible for this album. Overall, these melodies were consistently well crafted and constantly appealing. That is a gem for works like this.
When I said that this work was intricate, I didn’t mean that there was anything too technically difficult or advanced about it. Instead, its intricacy lies within the creative ways that Tillman applied these seemingly normal conventions. That couldn’t be truer within most every song’s harmonic structure. While working within three or four chord segments that listeners have become endeared to, he created wonderful rhythmic patterns with a great sense of natural tendencies. These harmonies flowed incredibly well from the piano and/or guitar while maintaining power. The harmony almost always found a way to wake the ears and turn heads with a timely borrowed chord. The presence of borrowed chords such as III and bVI came to be expected after a while, but its place and purpose within the song was always a nice surprise. Even the two chord loops of I and IV were timely and well done. The song “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” is a great example of Tillman’s powerful simplicity within the harmony. Even though rhythm did become a bit stagnant and old in a few songs, the harmony was still the driving force behind the music. I hate to make comparisons between musicians when discussing the quality of music, but this similarity is too strong and interesting not to mention: this was very Paul McCartney-like in terms of the chromaticism and patterns within a simple harmonic language. That is a huge comparison that may not quite be even, but it’s worth recognizing, even if Tillman never reaches this height of creativity again.
The many positive conveyances and atmospheres here supersede the often bare and predictable textures. The overall formula of starting off quaint and becoming large for a second with hefty synthetic additions was nothing more than neat in the beginning, but became much more meaningful and impactful when drawn out by the album’s end. There were some great powerful transitions done with sound, from the awesome saxophone entrance in “Total Entertainment Power” to the nice strings in “Birdie” to the pile of instruments that provided an essential slow build in the long song “Leaving LA”. Some additions weren’t as catching or purposeful, but they were needed so as to not leave the piano so exposed. Still, there was a substantial amount of a basic piano and vocal texture that wasn’t very inspiring due to the piano’s rudimentary motion, but it was nonetheless an emotional sound at its core. The most pleasing and interesting timbre came from long periods of synthetic texture dominance. This created great spots of dream-like space and provided nice balance with the main harmonic instrument. The pinnacle of the album’s timbre came in the balance and beauty of the penultimate song, “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”. While very conversational at times, Tillman was still able to bring uniqueness and energy to this sound, which was needed for the album to be considered great.
At its most modest reception, it can be described as a successful and pleasant endeavor in modern folk rock that’s worth a listen to fans of naturalistic music. It’s biggest potential is that of being a revolutionary statement in the forefront of today’s indie rock scene that gives a stronger heartbeat to singer-songwriters everywhere. Again, I hate to make outside comparisons, even to the musician’s past work, but it’s worth mentioning that this is far and away Tillman’s best work as Father John Misty, and perhaps his best work ever as a musician. I think this album puts him among one of the best of our generation.
Final Score: 150/180