Scepticism has received a worrying uptick in popularity recently. I’m under no allusions as to why: the world we live in is distinctly shit, getting shitter every single day, and so there’s a kind of comfort that comes from taking a shitty attitude towards it all. It’s like deciding to only ever expect the worst of your very worst friend – optimism is disappointing, cynicism is freeing. You know they’ll be two hours late to your coffee date, and that they’ll suspiciously have lost their credit card when it comes time to pay for their overpriced latte and snack, so why set yourself up for heartache by expecting anything different?
But here’s the thing: just because something is easy, doesn’t make it right. Profound and unceasing scepticism isn’t just boring – it’s actively unhelpful. I often find myself thinking about the story of Pyrrho, an Ancient Greek sceptic who took every single thought, opinion, and experience presented to him with a fistful of salt. He was sceptical when it came to causation; sceptical when it came to knowledge; sceptical when it came even to the existence of himself.
One day, while Pyrrho was sceptically walking to market, he heard a low groan emerging from the ditch by the side of the road. He peered over to see his master, the arch sceptic Anaxarchus, lying in the muck, the victim of a flipped carriage. “Help!” Anaxarchus cried. “Help me out!”
Pyrrho thought about it for a long time. Eventually, after much deliberation, he spoke. “Anaxarchus, you are my master. I would like to help you. But I have no way of knowing whether the world would be a better or worse place if I helped you out of the ditch. So I have decided not to help. Good day.” And with that, Pyrrho went on his way to the market, leaving Anaxarchus rolling about in the muck.
Watch ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ by Father John Misty
So here’s the thing: scepticism, in its purest form, is a kind of stasis. Spend your whole life shitting on everything around you, and soon you’ll be drowning in the stuff. Case in point: Father John Misty’s new record, God’s Favourite Customer, out now. One long series of oh-so-clever puns, arch digressions, and Phil Spector-esque choruses, it’s one more nail in the coffin of the once promising career Father John Misty (real name Josh Tillman) flirted with on glossy but oddly sincere records like I Love You, Honeybear and Fear Fun.
Sure, Tillman was never exactly original – his shtick was always looted heavily from the records of significantly more talented ’60s songwriters like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson – but at least he used to know how to have a good time. Now his songs are first year moral psychology lectures set to languid, Xanax-addled instrumentation: songs like ‘Mr. Tillman’ and ‘Date Night’ are so languid one has to fight the temptation to check their pulse. If you wanna write a book, write a book Josh. Don’t keep pretending that flipping off low hanging fruit makes you some guru; you’re a dilettante knee-jerk reacting to the world in the most tiresome way possible.
Contrast that to the new record from wormy punks Lithics, Mating Surfaces. Lithics are as fed-up with the world as the rest of us – there is a gloriously bored rasp hiding in the folds of lead singer Aubrey Hornor’s vocals, and songs like the excellent ‘When Will I Die’ have a resigned kind of fatalism to them. But not content with just tearing shit down, Lithics spend 12 tracks building something out of the rubble. This is punk rock that has all the energy and life of ’70s disco; bold anthems that have had 12 thousand volts of electricity shot right through them. ‘Glass Of Water’ in particular is a minute and a half-long masterpiece, all spiky solos and melody lines as blotched and unfocused as a Rorshach test.
Watch ‘Specs’ by Lithics
Of equal magnitude are two new Australian records: Pink Is The Colour Of Unconditional Love by Gabriella Cohen and Rolly Nice by The Finks. The first is a sun-dappled, sensory overload; a Matisse brought to musical life, full of choruses as tactile as thick daubs of oil paint. Cohen doubles down on the things that made her debut, Full Closure And No Details so impressive, but she’s not merely going over past victories.
This time, she has the sonic control of a veteran – ‘Music Machine’ and ‘Neil Young’ might be highlights, but this is a record that has been painstakingly, carefully assembled. Tracks blend into each other; the doo-wops and ooh-ahs rack up without ever smothering songs; and Cohen knows just when to peel everything back and let her songwriting shine through. With Pink Is The Colour Of Unconditional Love, Cohen has become one of the most impressive and accomplished songwriters in the country.
Watch ‘Music Machine’ by Gabriella Cohen
To The Finks. Oliver Mestitz, the principal songwriter of the band, is a poet, and Rolly Nice is his newest volume of verse. Like William Carlos Williams, perhaps, or Frank O’Hara, he has an eye for picking out moments of gentle, quiet beauty; his songs pivot not on tension, or on drama, but on the stuff we’re really talking about when we talk about “real life”. “I don’t believe something is better than nothing,” goes a line ‘Charlie’s Manifesto’. “I believe in salt water.” These are the things he takes inspiration from: fruit bowls, Vegemite, tomato sachets. And these are the ways that he moves you: quietly, with grace.
Dud of the Month: God’s Favourite Customer – Father John Misty
Highlight Of The Month: Mating Surfaces – Lithics
Read last month’s Sounds Like column here.