We’re in for a wild one here, gang.
It’s barely been a month, and already we've seen a dangerous, potentially unstable man sworn into the highest office in the world while millions of people across the globe rally against him and all he stands for. If 2016 was one big slog of a year (and it was), then 2017 promises more of the same.
But like last year, 2017 has already delivered a ton of great new music. With even more great artists planning new releases (list coming soon), we’re all hoping the new year in music can stack up to the last two (seriously – 2015 and 2016 were banner years). So far, some of the best new music has reflected the vast chasm of emotions many of us have felt since the calendar flipped. We may feel helpless in the wake of a totally unknowable future, but we also feel pride watching so many people around the world show out for progress and tolerance. New releases from Father John Misty and Japandroids pit those extremes against one another, and we might already have the most depressing and most optimistic tracks of the year.
For the all-too-crushing sense of dread and pessimism, a lot of us are dealing with, we’ve been gifted new singles from Lauren Canyon lounge lizard Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty. He’s put out three new singles, but let’s focus on the title track. A sprawling, orchestra-adorned journey through the senselessness of mankind’s existence, “Pure Comedy” is six and a half minutes of harrowing nihilism, all filtered through Tillman’s perverse sense of humor and acerbic wit. An accompanying video, illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Ed Steed, takes on everything from big pharma to natural disasters, American politics to a sexy Pepe the Frog. It’s an intense, soul throttling bit of imagery, not unlike “Bored in the U.S.A.”, the leadoff single from FJM’s last album, I Love You, Honeybear. That song featured a similar structure: stark piano chords over Tillman’s stinging lambast of the absurdity of life give way to beautiful orchestration, with Tillman exclaiming, “Save me, White Jesus!” That track’s jarring irony is replaced with resigned hopelessness on “Comedy,” his voice cracking as he howls, “It’s like something that a madman would conceive!” And while “Bored in the U.S.A.” took its nihilism with a hefty dose of bemusement, “Comedy” is an utterly bleak take on humanity’s afflictions.
Tillman’s career as Father John Misty is an interesting case study in the art of mythmaking. After his brief tenure as the drummer of Fleet Foxes, Tillman retooled his stagnant solo career around the Father John Misty pseudonym, creating an album in Fear Fun that was as much about self-mythology as it was about great, kaleidoscope songwriting. But while Fear Fun established Father John Misty as a character, Honeybear found Tillman tearing that character down, blurring the lines between sincerity and satire. It's an album about love and romance; all delightfully spun through Tillman's mind. His songs could be crushingly ironic (see: "Bored in the U.S.A.", "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment") or extraordinarily romantic ("Chateau Lobby #4", "Holy Shit," "I Went to the Store One Day"). Discerning what was sincere and what was sarcastic proved to be part of the beauty of that record, and a lot of it was left up to the listener's interpretations. It was fascinating to watch an artist build a new persona, listening as the man and the myth became one in the same.
Tillman’s new album, Pure Comedy, due out April 7th on Sub Pop, probably won’t dwell too much on romance or self-mythology. He recognizes the stakes are too high. He said, in an email sent to NPR Music, the title track is not political in nature. It's hard to watch that video, with its politically charged iconography and disturbing shots of natural disasters, and not think otherwise. Even if the song is merely about “human beings,” he doesn’t hold back on our lesser nature, cracking bitter jokes at our expense, “And how’s this for irony? Their idea of being free is a prison of their beliefs that they never, ever have to leave.” Applied to the current political climate, it’s a commentary on complacency over progress, on societal regression. And even taken out of a political context, it’s a biting take on religion, idolatry, and greed, among other things. It’s thoroughly depressing, despite its beautiful, ‘70s-John Lennon-esque arrangement. Judging by the 25-minute mini-doc released in advance of the album, the rest of the record promises a similar sonic aesthetic. Like all of Tillman’s music under the FJM moniker, it sounds lush and gorgeously arranged, sometimes recalling ‘70s songwriter forbearers like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and Warren Zevon. But if he’s taken the stark themes of “Bored in the U.S.A.” and “Pure Comedy” and stretched them across an entire album (a 75-minute double album, no less), then we’re all in for a long and depressing, albeit sonically beautiful, slog.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, it seems like nobody told Japandroids that the world is seemingly folding in on itself. That isn't surprising. Since bursting onto the scene in 2009 with Post-Nothing, the duo of singer/guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse never chose to concern themselves with the weightier subjects. Instead, the Canadian rockers have opted for a simpler message: get drunk with your friends and live it up. On their third album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids taps into this sentiment once again. Considering they perfected that idea with their last album, 2012’s extraordinary Celebration Rock, you’d be forgiven for expecting an album of diminishing returns, full of ham-fisted clichés and choruses stocked with exultant “whoooaas!” and “yeeeaaaahs!". In fact, you'd even be right. What's crazy about Wild Heart of Life is that Japandroids manage to make it work. And not just that it works, but that it might be the most uplifting music you hear all year.
The thing about Japandroids is that they own this shit. They just want you to be happy. They want you to get hammered with your friends. They want you to stay out partying all night, to hell with tomorrow’s consequences. They want you to fall in love a thousand times, and to get your heart broken so you can fall in love a thousand times more. To prove it, they've crafted another album of huge, distorted power chords, thunderous, galloping drums, and fist-raising, lighter-waving choruses. Their M.O. is clear from the title track, which comes hurtling out of the gate like a thoroughbred racehorse to deliver an electrifying, Springsteen-esque tale about escapism and the “continuous cold war between my home and my hometown”, about getting “fired up to go far away”. Even a clunker lyric like “I used to be good, but now I’m bad” can’t derail this bullet train. It’s like a dose of serotonin to your nervous system, a shot of adrenaline straight to your heart. You have no choice but to crank this motherfucker up, sing along as loudly as possible, and hope you don’t break anything when you start moshing.
Be advised; this feeling doesn't let up for 36 minutes and 48 seconds. It’s pure; unbridled joy occasionally tinged with nostalgia and sentimentality. It aspires to the loftiest stadium rafters in ways that rock bands in the 21st century just don't do anymore, and it's corny. Sometimes it’s so naïve it borders on comic. You can't tell me the last minute of on-the-road barnstormer "North East South West" or the pile driving epicness of “Arc of Bar” don’t get your heart racing in ways your favorite “serious” rock bands just can’t do. Japandroids don't want you to think. They want you to act. They want you to do. They want you to be fucking live. They’re a superheated ball of optimism in what’s already been a cold, dark year.
Between what Near to the Wild Heart of Life is and what Pure Comedy promises to be, there’s a good chance the soundtrack to the best and worst moments of 2017 has already been released or at least previewed. Whether that bodes well for us or not is entirely up to you, and it's certainly true that the enormous quantity of great new music coming out might mean this article's entire premise is wildly inaccurate. For now, we have the songs that will drive us to drink, for better or worse, in these early days of an uncertain new year.
It always helps to have something to cling to. Even Father John Misty ends “Pure Comedy” with a resigned, weary, “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.” He’s right, but it isn't hard to tell he doesn’t put too much faith in us.