"Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them." – Matthew 5:1
You’d be forgiven for double-taking if you strolled into the London Eventim Apollo last Tuesday night and witnessed what appeared to be Jesus Christ himself, four shirt buttons down, strumming an acoustic, having his beard lovingly stroked by worshippers hanging onto his every sardonic word. Josh Tillman, I imagine, would disapprove of this comparison. Then again, after the release of 2017s 'Pure Comedy', it's hard to know what he doesn't disapprove of these days. Tillman's critics have accused him of having his head up his own arse, appealing mainly to members of white nu-Guardian champagne-socialist-hipster support groups who hold weekly meetings in vegan coffee shops. Yet, this is his genius. As the lights dim and the ironic preacher emerges, it becomes immediately clear that he mocks everyone.
The sermon commences, and he starts at the very beginning: “The comedy of man starts like this…” Tillman's always had a dark wit and it returned with a vengeance on the new album: "Comedy, now that's what I call pure comedy/Just waiting until the part where they start to believe/They're at the center of everything/And some all-powerful being endowed this horror show with meaning." Gazing out into the cavernous space, he leans on his mic stand, throwing out scathing critique with an assured confidence that he holds brilliantly close to arrogance: “Who are these goons they elected to rule us?”. Cave-paintings depicting the modern man are projected on the curtains above us. With backing orchestra and synth-players under his thumb, he launches into the next 3 tracks off 'Pure Comedy'. Honestly, "Bedding Taylor Swift/every night inside the oculus rift/ after Mr and the Mrs., /finish dinner and the dishes" must be one of the greatest intro lyrics of the last decade.
What follows is a monster two-hour set spanning his entire back-catalogue. What his recent lyrics lack in positivity, he makes up for in his gregarious musical performance. A thespian in composition, Tillman placates anyone offended by his sarcasm with soft-spoken lullabies and theatrical crescendos. As if exorcised, he throws himself around the stage, parting oceans of golden confetti that billow up to the rafters. It’s this performance that makes the show; the over-the-top stage presence, big-band and theatrical gimmicks all build on his mockery of everyone’s insatiable need for entertainment. You’re torn between loving every minute of it, and the realisation that you’re just another person holding up a phone to the lyrics: “When historians find us we’ll be in our homes/plugged into our hubs/skin and bone”. This painful self-awareness is integral to his work and its reception. We’re shown the music video for ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment’, depicting Tillman enjoying a one night stand with himself, a naïve partner and lover: “I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on/Why don’t you move to the delta?” Revisiting his debut album, he launches into unashamed ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’ (“You kiss/on me/We should let this dead guy sleep”) and ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ before the climatic finale.
He closes the evening with four favorites. ‘Real Love Baby’ delicately blends into ‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’, before ‘Holy Shit’ preempts a completely over-the-top rendition of ‘The Ideal Husband’: “I've done things unprotected/Proceeded to drive home wasted/Bought things to win over siblings/I've said awful things, such awful things…Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?”. More confetti, more orchestra, more guitars; a complete excess of everything. Yes, it may be tacky to brag about your own genius, and yes, it is definitely irritating. But if anyone in the business can do it right, with the perfect balance of self-love and self-awareness, it’s Father John Misty.
Photograph: WFUV Public Radio