Title: Pure Comedy
Artist: Father John Misty
3/5 stars
Released: 07/04/17
Reviewed by: RUBEN MITA

 

Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, has a lot on his plate, what with the weight of humanity bearing down on him. His much-anticipated third album, Pure Comedy, is the existential crisis everyone’s expecting due to his swiftly intensifying prophet/preacher-like media presence (and of course his 1,800 word essay preceding its release and kindly explaining it all to us).

But it’s a crisis on a larger scale than ever before: universal. “The miracle of birth leaves a few issues to be addressed” he sings in the opening title track, and then lists these issues for the ensuing 75 minutes it takes for the album to run its length. Tillman sets out to create the definitive lyrical document of our decade, and in a factual, observational kind of way, does so. In its world-weariness, cynicism and information overload, it is almost accurate in a way. But as an artistic and musical work, it leaves more to be desired.

Pure Comedy is, simply put, less musical than its acclaimed predecessor, 2015’s I Love You Honeybear. As far as the instrumentation goes not much has changed, with piano, acoustic guitar, drums and bass mixing with strings and synth pads in a wonderfully chamber-pop sound. But it is fairly nondescript throughout as far as melodies and chord progressions are concerned, and for the most part quite downbeat, trudging along in dirge-like waltzes at slow-dance tempos. The album lacks the dynamic variation of Honeybear, mainly because here the music serves primarily as a seat for the lyrics. Ah yes, the lyrics.

Father John Misty’s lyrical style, rooted in straight-faced humour, flaneur-ish cynicism, and witty observational couplets, was used to great success in I Love You Honeybear’s explorations of romance. Clearly buoyed by this, Pure Comedy is packed from front to back with a list of painstakingly carefully constructed nuggets of wisdom for us disciples.

What would be lyrical talking points on other albums make up almost every line here, and because of this, when I come away from listening to it, I can’t think of any lyrical talking points from memory. Unrelentingly dense and rambling, his observations are clever and witty at best (“When the god of Love returns/there’ll be hell to pay”), and painfully forced and searching at worst (“Oh comedy, their illusions they have no choice but to believe/their horizons that just forever recede/and how’s this for irony, their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs”). You can see how over an hour of that starts to feel claustrophobic, and occasionally just… a little irritating.

The way the lyrics leap from topic to topic between every two lines does a good job of mirroring the short attention span of the decade he is essentially trying to narrate. This narration encompasses the political divide in America, consumerism, social media, entertainment, the futility of life,“the system,” etc., and while it comes off as preachy in places, it would be untrue to say he doesn’t often hit the nail on the head.

However, the vocal delivery is lacking in variety – his pained, earnest waver follows the same sequence of notes and phrasings a lot of the time, and always in the same tone, awkwardly twisting and turning to fit ill-fitting words into tune seemingly for the sake of appearing clever rather than for the sake of musicality.

There are brilliant moments though. The more surreal poetic images of A Bigger Paper Bag work well, and Smoochie, while less interesting musically, creates a welcome breather by narrowing Misty’s scope of address from the human race to a single human object of affection. The gentle acoustic centrepiece Leaving LA, Misty’s own Desolation Row, is the best example of the more topical material that dominates the album, and gives us some of his best lines to date (“She’s like, ‘Oh great, that’s just what we all need/Another white guy in 2017/Who takes himself so goddamn seriously’”). However it’s kind of overwhelming to reach the end of its thirteen minutes and see you’re not even halfway through the track list.

There is one more essential moment if you stick with it right towards the end though – the world-weary So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain, which makes rare effective use of a simple refrain, filled out towards the end with beautiful synth textures and slide guitar. At close on 10 minutes, it doesn’t feel it compared to some other tracks.

Pure Comedy, as his most ambitious work to date, is essential for any established Father John Misty fan, and it has fantastic moments deserving of a listen by anyone who has the time. There’s something loveable in the less forced moments of Tillman’s cynicism – this is a guy who, upon seeing a sunset in Leaving LA, is “predictably” reminded of the world’s end, which he says will be “nice to get some space.”

As a whole though, it doesn’t quite add up to the wholesome musical experience of his better work. At one point he sings “It’ll be so glorious/when they finally find out what’s bugging us” – a wryly humorous line in the middle of an album that could easily be retitled Things That Bug Father John Misty. You kind of have to love him for it.  

 

Standout tracks: Leaving LA, So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain, A Bigger Paper Bag

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