Father John Misty turns his critical lens outward on ‘Pure Comedy’
Jimmy Kemper | Friday, April 28, 2017
Father John Misty is a difficult artist to write about. No other musician right now inhabits the same space that he does: a space that exists somewhere in the heart of indie and Americana rock, hidden under so many layers of irony, sarcasm, self-loathing and pseudo-intellectual babble that it’s nearly impossible to capture the core of his persona. Sometimes, the boundaries between Father John Misty, the character and stage personality, and Josh Tillman, the man behind the act, blur so much that it’s uncomfortable to engage with the music, especially when a misinterpretation could become the subject of a Twitter rant.
His latest album, “Pure Comedy,” is both the culmination and rejection of all these weird idiosyncrasies that make Josh Tillman such a compelling character to follow. For the first time since he donned the Father John Misty moniker, Josh Tillman has stripped back all of his ironies and insecurities to reveal the soul at the center of his work. What we find there is absolutely terrifying.
“Pure Comedy” reflects of America as it is right now: a deeply divided, deeply troubled land rapidly hurtling towards the hellfires of an artificially intelligent dystopia – a reality that Tillman finds hilarious.
His approach on “Pure Comedy” radically different from his last effort, 2015’s excellent “I Love You Honeybear.” On “Honeybear,” Misty spent the entire album working through all of his personal flaws within the context of the societal expectations, gender politics and religious narratives surrounding marriage before conceding on the final verse of the penultimate track “Holy S—” that none of it mattered as long as he and his wife genuinely loved each other. From there, Father John Misty gently carried us to the album’s closer and his magnum opus, “I Went To the Store One Day” – a reflection on the serendipitous moment when he met his wife and an elegy to the romantic possibilities of the future. With the ending, Misty left us with a sense of optimism to set against the absolute insanity of the human experience.
“Pure Comedy” replaces “Honeybear’s” optimism with overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression and bitterness that radiate forward from the first lines of the opening track.
To be fair, the country’s sociopolitical climate has changed so much since “Honeybear,” that the shift in tone feels not only justified, but absolutely necessary. Misty, by turning “Honeybear’s” self-critical approach outward, brings the rest of the world to his level.
He leaves no stone unturned, viscerally condemning and mocking anything that’s made its way through his newsfeed in the past few years, even taking the time in the middle of his 13-minute ballad “Leaving LA” to turn his condemnatory stare back inward and brutally ridicule himself with unprecedented honesty. He approaches the insurmountable task of satirizing every American institution and ideology with a knack for lyrical wit second only to the incomparable Kendrick Lamar.
Wittiness aside and barring a few gems, “Pure Comedy” isn’t worth listening to more than once. Lyricism alone can’t carry the entire album. Misty’s traditional American ballad approach – one hand on the guitar, another on the piano – accentuates the excellent lyrics but doesn’t add meaning or variety to the album. “Total Entertainment Forever” is the exception, employing a stunning jazz line at the song’s climax to juxtapose the wild but grounded entertainment of the past with the bleak and infinite joys of the dystopian future. It’s an excellent moment that puts the rest of the album’s compositions to shame. It also makes me wonder if “Pure Comedy’s” lyrics would be better served if Misty had instead offered them as a collection of poems.
For all of the its flaws, “Pure Comedy” is a remarkable achievement that showcases Misty’s impressive ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist. Like the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar, Misty authentically captures a wild array of emotions – all of the anger, confusion and sorrow that make up post-election America. When critics reflect on 2017’s year’s best music in December, I have no doubt that “Pure Comedy” will find its way onto a number of the lists. Misty, after all, paved the way for how we engage with this new America, mainly by laughing at at the absurdity of it all.
Artist: Father John Misty
Album: “Pure Comedy”
Label: Sub Pop
Favorite Track: “Total Entertainment Forever”
If you like: Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5