Published on April 17th, 2017 | by Jeff Thiessen0
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Father John Misty’s new album, Pure Comedy, sees the singer / songwriter writing some welcome arrangements, and some perhaps over the top politically charged lyrics.
Liberation philosophy, at least as it’s been defined by Ellacuria, is basically this: it really, really hates any form of idealism, even that which transcends the theoretical arena and moves into the realism one. The ultimate goal, according to those who subscribe to this line of thinking, seems to be, “get as close as possible, intellectually, to the reality of things.” Another way of saying this is, “since we’re already always in reality (as we define it), what’s the proper way to engage it?”
I bring all this up not to over-intellectualize a rock album, but to give you a roughshod idea of what ‘Pure Comedy’ represents to Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty [FJM]. The album really does come off as a pretty legitimate form of liberation to him, and on many moments here, he does seem to wrestle with the idea of his current reality, and how he’s interpreting it. This means many things, but chief among them: there’s not much ‘Honeybear’ to be found on the record. Certainly no ‘I Love You.’
We’ve seen and heard a lot of FJM the last few months. I could scarcely go a week or so without one of his quotes or rants making easy headlines for music zines everywhere. I read them all; hell they were usually great reads, and in many cases gave Oasis a run for their money in terms of sheer quotability. Most of them came off like they could be something John Mayer might say, if he grew half a brain. I grew to know a lot about the Father, in fact even looking beyond the shock of going 0-100 in five seconds flat in regard to how radically different he began to view media exposure, it all started to reek of overkill in some ways. That’s not a huge criticism in and of itself, but it’s fair to say I was more than a little taken aback just how severely this new openness(?) bled into the finished product of ‘Pure Comedy.’
In some ways, it reminded me of Lou Reed’s late 90’s/early 00’s work. Once he decided he was a poet, well he’d be goddamned if he wasn’t gonna remind us this every single possible chance he had, even culminating in an entire album centred around Poe’s ‘The Raven.’ Here, it’s hard to say if FJM is cultivating the outspoken, unpredictable eccentric identity he has been so quick to showcase this past year prior to release, or if it’s just bursting out at the seams after focused, relatively straightforward (in a good way) releases like ‘I Love You, Honeybear.’ The responsibility for discerning which reality is actual truth is really of no interest to us, especially when I’m pretty sure FJM is still wondering what his fundamental freedom is, or more specifically, the most efficient way to express it.
I’ve never really heard an album like ‘Pure Comedy.’ Arrangements are for the most part lush, sweeping, and easy to marvel at. There really isn’t a boring moment on the album. But that persona I was referring to above? It doesn’t just pop up as a version of FJM that we’re used to, instead it drives the album with almost no discernible shift from the interviews he’s been doing habitually in 2016. He’s taken on the role as the drunk postmodern hipster at the end of the bar, wrapping maximalist Elton Johnish arrangements around his social justice warrior ranting. It’s not as bad as it sounds — but make no mistake about it, this will be a divisive album. The title track kicks things off and pulls zero punches. Perhaps it’s best just to provide a lyrical example from the opening cut:
“Oh, their religions are the best
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits
And they get terribly upset
When you question their sacred texts
Written by woman-hating epileptics”
It’s pretty easy to be impressed by this on paper, as I’m reading it I’m actually really admiring how well he’s sequenced that awkward anti-fundamentalist screed. But the way it’s delivered within the context of the song, we aren’t really given the opportunity to disagree with what he’s saying, or ideally ignore it, as the plodding march refuses to surrender to any form of subtlety or inward introspection. Everything is target practice.
Once you get to know ‘Pure Comedy’ well, you’ll realize it’s fruitless to hold some faint hope he changes the subject and moves on. He does frequently, but they’re almost always parallel pivots and we’re counting down the seconds until he has some other Crossfire type topic in his crosshairs. Sometimes we’re lucky and he moves on from long-winded commentary, hangs back with ironic detachment, and ‘Pure Comedy’s’ serious sonic chops carry the heavy lifting (like on album standout ‘Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution’, as well as the sparse ‘When the God of Love Returns, There Will be Hell to Pay.’ The latter actually sees him asking bigger picture questions and letting his voice soar, which will go down as one of his strongest and most powerful tracks put to record), but that doesn’t happen nearly as much as one would hope.
‘Total Entertainment Forever’ (clearly a jab at The Foals ‘Total Life Forever,’ har-har) is already getting a lot of attention. Not hard to figure out why. The song begins with some lyrics about banging Taylor Swift in the Oculus Rift. Musically it’s as purposeful as anything he’s ever done, almost like a jacked up version of ‘Honeybear’s’ title track. And I hate to be dividing the review into a music and lyrical section, but honestly FJM’s relentless commentary comes at us at such an oppressive rate, I’m really left with no choice. None of the songs are wasted by this approach per se, but on several occasions their effect is profoundly crippled, or at the very least warped into something incredibly difficult to find a way to connect with, even if we are in full concurrence with what he’s actually saying. It’s almost like his tweets were put down first, worked into lyrics, and the music is left with a difficult, winding path around them, relegated to carving out new doors for Misty to take a battering ram to. ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ is his anti-technology mission statement, and no matter how gorgeously monumental the aural backdrops are, I’m still stuck listening to a Black Mirror script.
It feels weird to write, but when FJM loses some steam in the back end of ‘Pure Comedy,’ we’re exposed to some of the strongest material on the album. Gone is the hardwired fulmination, and in its place is a sort of resigned survival. It’s not as adventurous as some of the first few tunes, but he finally lets himself breathe, and we can finally breathe right there with him.
Maybe ‘Pure Comedy’ is an album he had to make. And perhaps if he retreats more into his private life, if critics grow quieter, we will see something more than a penny-for-this-thoughts every second verse. I’ve always thought the defining characteristic of FJM’s work has been a piecemeal, self-doubting/jerky complacency erosion into a triumphant pile of rubble symbolizing a struggle for victory that is far more fun to mock than to try and push us towards. ‘Pure Comedy’ isn’t exactly calculated outrage, but it does put him too close to the frontlines, and he seems to think he’s the first guy who has to charge in, guns blazing. Now is probably the most important time for artists to start layering social vectors into their music as much as possible, I do get that — I just liked FJM better when he was hedging his bets. The times, they are a changing alright.