Com­pos­ing an Al­bum For the Era of Out­rage

Scorn­ful songs about as­pects of mod­ern life that dis­tract us from love.

Paper Boy - - Front Page - By ROB TANNENBAUM


“The bal­ance was more even at the early stages of con­ver­sa­tion, but this is some­how what came out of it,” he added.

The work made by women in Desert X proved less spec­ta­cledriven and more con­tem­pla­tive. A sound in­stal­la­tion by Lita Al­bu­querque cen­ters on a fe­male sculp­ture with her ear to the ground.

The work of Clau­dia Comte of Switzer­land, a wall three me­ters high and 30 me­ters long at the base of hik­ing trails in Palm Desert, might at a dis­tance seem a cri­tique of Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump’s plans for re­in­forc­ing the border. But up close, it’s clear that the art­work is a paint­ing as much as a wall, cov­ered with re­peat­ing black S-pat­terns that grad­u­ally sharpen into zigzags as you walk along it. The wall ap­pears to bulge in spots be­cause of the curves, an op­ti­cal ef­fect that nods to Op Art paint­ing as well as to heat haze, the shim­mer­ing vis­ual dis­tor­tion that can oc­cur in the desert.

At an­other trail­head far­ther west, near the base of the White­wa­ter Pre­serve, the Los An­ge­les­based Sherin Guir­guis has built a domed earthen sculp­ture like the pi­geon tow­ers pop­u­lar in Egypt, where she grew up. The tow­ers are typ­i­cally used to breed the birds for food or sport (and, rarely, for es­pi­onage mis­sions). Her sculp­ture has niches for birds, but she doesn’t ex­pect any to use it; she wants view­ers to won­der about its sig­nif­i­cance.

“I hear peo­ple say the desert is a blank can­vas,” she said. “Ac­tu­ally it’s full of life and full of his­to­ries; we just don’t value them enough. I wanted to reach into the history of these desert com­mu­ni­ties that are of­ten marginal­ized.” Josh Till­man had recorded eight al­bums un­der the name J. Till­man when he had an epiphany, prompted by his first ex­pe­ri­ence with a hal­lu­cino­genic drug: He should change his name as a way of re­boot­ing his ca­reer. He was un­sat­is­fied with the somber folk songs he’d been mak­ing — “sad bas­tard mu­sic,” he called it — and wanted to spring free his sense of hu­mor, ab­sur­dity and play­ful­ness.

A friend asked about the moniker, and Mr. Till­man un­veiled it: Fa­ther John Misty.

“He was like, ‘No! Do not call it that,’” Mr. Till­man said. “And I said to him, ‘ Yes!’ Be­cause that’s my [gosh- darn] per­son­al­ity. I have a weird, cheap petu­lance. Peo­ple hear it, and it fills them with loathing: ‘ What kind of [chump] calls him­self Fa­ther John Misty?’ But when I hear it, it makes me laugh.”

Af­ter adopt­ing a ridicu­lous pseu­do­nym, Mr. Till­man emerged as a ster­ling song­writer. Two years ago, he re­leased “I Love You, Honey­bear,” a record that was widely picked as one of the best of 2015.

Mr. Till­man, 35, has sur­passed it with “Pure Com­edy,” due April 7. It’s a sprawl­ing, in­ci­sive, ex­as­per­at­ing, hi­lar­i­ous, and yes, petu­lant look at mod­ern life — ref­er­ences in­clude news feeds, meta­data, Ocu­lus Rift and, be­cause it rhymes, Tay­lor Swift — with, he stresses, a small but sig­nif­i­cant amount of hope. But by ra­tio, the hope is over­whelmed by his scorn for re­li­gion, pre­scrip­tion drugs, ad­ver­tis­ing, pop mu­sic and shiny ob­jects that dis­tract us from love and mor­tal­ity.

“There’s a frica­tive dis­con­nect be­tween what Josh is say­ing and the way he’s say­ing it,” said the com­poser Nico Muhly, who con­trib­uted to the al­bum’s clos­ing song, “In Twenty Years or So.” The record, Mr. Muhly said, evokes the tra­di­tions of “lovely folk mu­sic, with a real at­ten­tion to har­mony, but it also in­sists on the lyrics be­ing dif­fi­cult to lis­ten to. It’s sort of a Tro­jan horse of emo­tional con­tent.”

To fo­cus on the songs, Mr. Till­man, a merry lib­er­tine, gave up booze, drugs, cig­a­rettes and meat. “I needed all my wits about me if I was go­ing to take on these is­sues,” he said. “Mu­sic is chaos. When I write songs, I’m open­ing the door to mad­ness.” Judg­ing from the tequila-and-soda and the pack of cig­a­rettes in front of him, he’s now ab­stain­ing from ab­sti­nence.

“I didn’t like it,” he said. “Not for me. When the ledgers of history are drawn up, I’ll be on the side of the smok­ers and the mas­tur­ba­tors. Those are my peo­ple.”

Al­though Mr. Till­man sits firmly in the realm of in­die artists, he has had song­writ­ing cred­its with two global pop stars. He’s one of 13 co-writ­ers cred­ited on Bey­oncé’s “Hold Up,” and he co-wrote “Come to Mama” and “Sin­ner’s Prayer” with Lady Gaga.

The suc­cess of those songs has brought more of­fers of celebrity col­lab­o­ra­tions. “But I don’t re­ally want them,” Mr. Till­man said. “Peo­ple think the world of mu­sic is so great, and it’s just not. It’s so bor­ing, the way mu­sic is con­ceived and then de­clawed for pub­lic con­sump­tion.”

Mr. Till­man, who said his child­hood in Rockville, Mary­land, was dom­i­nated by re­li­gious in­struc­tion and fear, agrees that he has come back around to what he hated be­ing taught. “The real take­away from re­li­gion is the idea that we’re just pass­ing through this world,” he said. “If so, why not help peo­ple? Why not speak the truth?” As a re­sult, he said, “Pure Com­edy” is “like a sec­u­lar gospel al­bum.” He be­gan with a list of griev­ances, he said, and even­tu­ally found a new theme: “The al­bum is about sur­vival, and I think love is the sub­stance of sur­vival.”

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AN­DREW WHITE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Josh Till­man re­branded him­self as Fa­ther John Misty af­ter tak­ing hal­lu­cino­gens.

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