David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” graces many college students’ bookshelves, and for good reason. Captivating and extensive in subject matter, the novel tackles everything from tennis to substance abuse to the pitfalls of the entertainment industry. At more than one thousand pages, it is a lot to unpack. But Wallace leaves even the novel’s bloated digressions on the mechanics of telephones as readable. Heralded in some circles as the pinnacle of modern literature, the work carries a critical legacy even more formidable than its door-stopping size.
Father John Misty, the sardonic stage persona of Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter and internet troll John Tillman, takes a great deal from the gospel of David Foster Wallace on his latest record “Pure Comedy.” A sprawling 74-minute-long double album critical of everything under the sun, “Pure Comedy” is similar in ambitious to “Infinite Jest” in terms of size and scope. On the album, Tillman’s third as Father John Misty, irony-laden shots are fired not only at the media and its glut of vanity-driven popular artists — victims Tillman dubs “the comedy of man” on the title track — but also at the singer-songwriter himself. Thematically, it is remarkably similar to “Infinite Jest,” with the morbid and technophobic imagery of “Total Entertainment Forever” seemingly lifted directly from Wallace’s magnum opus. The album’s sweeping and ostensibly self-aware grandiosity wants so badly to replicate Wallace’s work with its meta and barbed critique of society. But Tillman, in a fundamental misreading of Wallace, ends up falling even flatter than the media and pop stars he sets out to skewer, at least lyrically.
Not unlike many of the literarily-inclined and clove-smoking aesthetes that attend liberal arts colleges everywhere, Tillman conflates “high” culture with social capital. Intellectualism is cool — a fact he reminds audiences of with every vacuous and cringe-inducing lyric on the album. Corny allusions to literary figures and vague references to technophobic doom are abound on “Pure Comedy,” each one more half-baked and nebulous than the last. The songwriting of tracks like “Leaving LA,” which affirms that “the role of Oedipus was a total breeze,” leaves the listener thinking the album might be best retitled “Pure Torture.” With an analysis that is closer to a B+ ninth grade book report on “Infinite Jest,” the one-dimensional references to media theories and academic texts promote more of a stroking of Tillman’s cynical ego than any meaningful metacommentary. Rather than seeing his supposed depth of acerbic cultured insight as a means of shedding truth on this troubled world, Tillman seems to view his art as a vehicle for his own vanity. In the process, he embarrasses himself, coming across as that kid in section who pretends to have done the readings, or even worse, that guy who goes to bars to mansplain the works of Simone de Beauvoir.
Outside of a few sincere one-liners, the songwriting is beyond clunky. But the most egregious aspect of the album might be its broader cynicism — an omniscience that serves as a crutch for actual emotion. Tillman’s brand of post-modern critique used to be hilarious and at least a little affecting. “Bored in the USA,” a track off his last album “I Love You Honeybear,” was a laugh track-lined musical critique of society that remained self-conscious of musical critique’s lack of potency, making for an incredibly interesting listen when it dropped in 2015. Tillman’s cynicism on “Pure Comedy,” however, rarely reaches such transcendence. Tillman eviscerates pop star Taylor Swift on “Total Entertainment Forever,” but does not substantiate his negativity with any kind of rigorous analysis. It’s simply pretension — phoned-in opinions as vapid as his references to media theory and Plato’s allegory of the cave. The end result is a petty irony no more enlightened than a mocking subtweet at an ex.
Maybe the only selling point to the album is its gorgeous, lush instrumentation. Tillman may not be that sincere, but as a former drummer for the ethereal indie act Fleet Foxes, he knows a thing or two about crafting pretty ballads. Wallace’s prose was cold and clinical, but Tillman’s songs, mostly mid-tempo, are warm and pleasant to the ear. At times, his crooning and fragile voice even seems to imply actual feelings. But it’s all too good to be true — Tillman, in another of his grating post-modern tricks, is probably just appropriating popular, unassuming harmonies to convey his affected message to the masses.
Irony and satire — if done right — can resound beyond themselves and affect true change. Most of the time though, in this Internet-saturated era, such stylized critiques devolve into a lazy and ineffectual way of coping with the world — a pervasive theme in Wallace’s oeuvre. The only entertaining irony on the album is Tillman’s complete misinterpretation of this concept. Like so many undergraduates with half-finished copies of “Infinite Jest,” he misses the point entirely.