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Review: Indie Icon returns with ambition

Andrew Dyer

Andrew Dyer

Andrew Dyer, Opinion Editor

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Father Josh Misty’s Coachella warm-up gig in San Diego at Humphrey’s by the Bay was a tale of two shows: one, a polished and prepared set destined for the Coachella masses and another, in which the indie-folk crooner stood alone on-stage with his guitar and struggled to come up with songs to play or remember their lyrics.

Josh Tillman, performing under the pseudonym “Father John Misty,” is on tour in support of “Pure Comedy,” his third full-length album since abandoning his drumming duties with Fleet Foxes.

The album is Tillman’s most ambitious to date, exploring themes of religion, fame, entertainment and the basic banality of human existenc. It is a 75-minute existential crisis.

The first half of the album is its strongest. Radio-friendly songs such as the title track, “Total Entertainment Forever” and “Ballad of the Dying Man” have all been released as singles and were the first songs Tillman played at his San Diego show.

“Pure Comedy” is very much an album of its time, reflective of the social anxiety and existential dread many are experiencing under Donald Trump as people retreat into their technological and ideological bubbles.

On “Pure Comedy,” Tillman is almost an atheist evangelist taking the faithless to church to reassure them that no, they’re not going crazy, everyone else is.

The scope of some of this high-mindedness is tempered somewhat by Tillman’s self-awareness and humor, its more serious lines delivered with a wink and a nod.

The album swerves into self-indulgence at points as Tillman lets his ambition get the better of him, like on the 10-minute “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain,” or the 13-minute “Leaving LA,” an autobiographical guitar-and-strings ballad. “Leaving LA,” despite its almost indigestible length, is also one of the album’s most touching and beautiful. In it, Tillman recalls choking on a piece of candy at a JC Penny’s as a child.

“I relive most times the radio’s on/ That ‘tell me lies, sweet little white lies’ song/ That’s when I first saw the comedy won’t stop for/ Even little boys dying in department stores.”

It is Tillman’s lyricism that gives “Pure Comedy” its punch. It is full of little moments that transcend pop, where Tillman explores ideas many people think about but don’t know how to put into words.

On his last record, “I love you, Honeybear,” a newlywed Tillman sang of a boundlessly optimistic love. He touched on some of his darker, nihilistic themes on “Honeybear,” specifically on the track “Bored in the USA.” His songwriting is still his greatest strength and has grown since “Honeybear,” but fans of that album will find little to none of its romantic sentimentality on “Pure Comedy.” And that’s OK.

Tillman is a skilled-enough songwriter to tackle darker themes and melancholy with a deft melodious sensibility that sweetly sugarcoats his bitter-pill message.

Father John Misty raced through the first half of his set at Humphrey’s, but once he had exhausted his Coachella set list, his band, horns, strings and all, left the stage, leaving Tillman alone in the spotlight with his acoustic guitar.

“What do ya’ll want to hear?” he asked the crowd, who began shouting requests. “Can ya’ll pick a spokesperson or a representative?” Tillman asked, laughing.

He played a few fan favorites, but struggled to remember the lyrics of “Holy S–t,” a song from his last album.

He ended the song prematurely, laughed and asked the audience for more requests, mentioning he had more contractually obligated performance time remaining.

He stopped the concert at one point during the one-man-band portion of the show when an audience member began urinating in the middle of the crowd.

“This looks like an ecstasy scenario,” he said, trying to laugh off the episode and move on with the show.

But Tillman never really recovered, and what up to that point had been a slightly unravelling intimate engagement with a small Humphrey’s crowd became completely disjointed.

The spellbinding dynamic that sometimes forms between an artist and their audience was broken by the phantom pisser.

Tillman played a few more songs and ended the affair without a crescendo or an encore. Father John Misty will return to San Diego in October for a double-engagement at the Observatory in North Park.

His stage performance should be much improved after tweaking and reworking some of its elements over the coming months on the road.

“Pure Comedy” is, more than anything, an album of its time. And while it has been panned by the hipper-than-thou crowd, it is an enjoyable listen, poignant and beautiful and worth 75 minutes of anyone’s time, existential crisis or not.

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