Composing an Album For the Era of Outrage
Scornful songs about aspects of modern life that distract us from love.
“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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