Josh Tillman’s masquerade as a folk singer has been one hell of a ride thus far. 2012’s Fear Fun saw the former Fleet Foxes drummer dip his toes into the dauntingly broad field of conventions in folk. Writing ballads and bluesy tracks which poked fun at the trope of the troubled solitary male who is equal parts lover and womanizer, Tillman made it abundantly clear throughout Fear Fun that despite the twangy guitars and yearning vocals, it was Hollywood, not the West, that spawned the satirical tracks.
On I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman’s yearning morphed into cynicism. Still under the guise of the world-weary troubadour, Tillman attacked conceptions of idealized romance and the notion that we, consumers who have been sold an image of a man full of contradictions and cliches through his portrayal in both his music and other media, might claim to identify with or know who he really is, what he’s really about.
Pure Comedy drops the pretense of Western themes and embraces a more straightforward attack of entertainment culture. “Pure Comedy,” the opening track, is more of a ballad than the rest of Tillman’s work, and at six minutes long, the track meanders back and forth as the singer muses on hubris.
Although Pure Comedy is less varied in terms of instrumentals than its predecessors, Tillman’s vocals take centre stage in just about every track. An oddly cheerful “Total Entertainment Forever” continues the cynicism of his previous work among upbeat horns and a pre-chorus of the “na-na-na” variety. “In the new age we’ll all be entertained,” sings Tillman, “rich or poor, the channels are all the same.”
One of the most strikingly direct tracks on the record also manages to slip by as one of its less immediately infectious ones. “The Memo” laments the trend that we have of falling prey to superficial selfishness which has blown up largely in part, says Tillman, due to social media. And although he’s more of the defeated outsider lamenting the state of things than he is an old man shaking his fists in outrage, Tillman’s dissatisfaction with the emergence of a kind of “cult of the self” is more than evident.
One thing that Pure Comedy has over Tillman’s previous records comes in the way that Tillman allows himself a more earnest, less restrained platform. Vocally, tracks like “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know” and the eponymous “Pure Comedy” showcase Tillman’s singing with less distractions than I love you, Honeybear or Fear Fun. For all his cynicism, Tillman sings with more emotion than most of the mainstream singer-songwriters on the charts — a fact that likely isn’t lost on him, and probably hardens his stance against modern pop, which he purports to be less akin to art than to a circus devoid of meaning.
Is the commentary on Pure Comedy subtle? No. It’s as heavy-handed in its agenda as you could get, short of saying “Artists are not here to save or lead you. They’re here to entertain you.” Clearly, Tillman thinks those artists have failed even in a task so meagre as entertaining us without having to pander to already-established and well-worn images and sentiments.
A bit chauvinist, perhaps, but if entertainment is the metric by which we’re going to measure Tillman’s success or failure (and, by extension, his right to call everyone else out on their hypocrisy) then despite his politics or Kanye-level antics, Pure Comedy succeeds unquestionably.