Decorated stand-up comic and Daily Show staff writer Josh Johnson explores uncharted territory to redefine the relationship between comedy and music. Comedians and musicians are storytellers. Both work to develop ideas and establish expectations in their audience’s ear, then subvert or complicate those expectations with the keenest sense of timing. Music is often used as a vehicle for comedy, but seldom are the two mediums treated as complementary—especially in the album format.
Josh Johnson will release his ambitious 33-track mixtape Elusive on June 11th and the epic work was announced today at Paste, who shared “Bought An Axe” and “Dating Profile” comedy tracks from the mixtape and the music track “I Like You Too (Part One Of A Love Story).”
“Part millennium escapism, part modern Negro spiritual,” Elusive weaves the Louisiana-born comedian’s shrewd and self-deprecating observations on the absurdities of modern dating and American decay with nine music tracks (most of which he co-wrote) that roam the same thematic terrain. “I think it’s more creative and interesting to see what a song sounds like that’s about what the previous two comedy tracks are about,” he says. “What’s being relayed in that pain, musically, that isn’t in the stand-up?”
Elusive is composed of two halves, or “arcs,” as Johnson calls them. In each arc, comedy and music intertwine like a double helix. The first arc refracts the timeless need to forge romantic (as well as platonic) relationships through the surreal lens of the pandemic. “You used to have to at least try,” Johnson says of Covid-era romance on “Dating Profiles.” “And now a dude’s Tinder profile can just be a picture of a bottle of Purell next to a roll of toilet paper with the caption, ‘I can take care of you, queen.’”
The second arc is more specific to the politics that bubbled to the surface since the pandemic began, as Johnson tackles student debt, Confederate statues, the American healthcare system, and the true nature of Black-on-Black crime. The musical interludes give shape to the mixtape—so-called because of its experimental and collaborative nature—and serve as its north star, articulating a mixture of hope and sorrow and an emotional clarity that any parade of jokes naturally obscures.
Johnson recorded the stand-up tracks on Elusive live in the fall of 2020 with executive producer and manager Samantha Murphy. He began the process of piecing together the musical elements much earlier; at the beginning of the pandemic, he brought aboard the prolific multimedia artist, turntablist, and composer Mike Relm as executive producer. The mixtape’s first four songs outline the beginning of a romantic relationship; sweet falsetto of Chicago vocalist Groovebox floats over varying strains of alternative R&B. The cinematic instrumental “The Crash” demarcates the break between the mixtape’s two narrative halves. For “Anybody Remix,” Johnson reached out to still-undiscovered Los Angeles melodic rap talent Frankie Tsunami to commission an extra verse. He sought out choir director Roderick Frazier to spearhead recordings of the iconic spiritual “Wade in the Water” and ‘60s liberation hymn “Oh Freedom.” The inclusion of these songs gives a historical context and puts a sharper point on Johnson’s astute but relatively light-hearted takes on the pandemic’s political waters.
Johnson’s comedy pedigree speaks for itself. Before The Daily Show, he wrote for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. He performs regularly on late night and at venues like the Comedy Cellar, and in 2019, he opened for Trevor Noah on the Loud & Clear Tour in arenas across the country. He’s released a comedy album (2017’s I Like You) and a half-hour special on Comedy Central. But nothing he—or any comic, for that matter—has made compares to Elusive, a singular comedy project that is concerned above all with form.
Elusive ends with a kind of benediction—one that makes it clear Johnson is not using the mixtape to wallow in his feelings, but rather to process them in hopes that he—and the rest of us—can springboard to a better place. “It’s written that faith is the belief in things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” he tells the listener. “I have faith in the future, in you, and that beautiful things are on the horizon. Thanks for listening. I love you.”