Album Review : Father John Misty - Pure Comedy (2017)
Father John Misty is the definition of hipster scum to whoever isn't interested in his music. I mean, he plays minimalist folk rock, sports scraggly beards of various lengths in public and seems to take everything and nothing seriously. People find that confusing. Behind this pseudo-cynical facade lies a talented and vibrant lyricist with a unique output on contemporary living. The man also known as J. Tillman prides himself in undermining celebrity culture and using his platform to discuss things he actually gives a shit about. He's an interesting guy and I've wanted to discuss his music here for a while. Father John Misty released Pure Comedy last April, which is perhaps his most vivid and incisive album up to date and this is what we're going to talk about today.
The music of Pure Comedy
Something you need to know before getting into Father John Misty's music is that he's...let's say philosophically influenced by traditional country music. By that I don't mean he spends eighty minutes braying into a microphone about Jefferson Davis and his long-lost cousin Betty Lou, but that music is a mere vehicle to his discourse. The arrangements on Pure Comedy are minimal and often consist of a guitar or a piano and a quiet, almost indiscernible rhythm section. There are some nice surprises here and there: a brass section on the title and and personal favorite of mine Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution. These literally transcend the songs. You're so transfixed by Father John Misty's voice and lyrics on the album, the brass sections hit you with perfect timing and keep the anachronistic nature of the music.
There is a siri-like voice effect on the song The Memo, which was also oddly moving and clever. It's always in the background, though and never calls attention to itself. I would've taken more of these complex arrangement on Pure Comedy, but I believe the utter complexity of Father John Misty's lyrics made it a little complex. But Pure Comedy isn't spreading itself thin. It knows what it is and sticks to its story. The showstopper here is J. Tillman's thoughts and lyrics and Pure Comedy delivers these long, psychologically complex and sometimes monotonous (in the way country music can be) portraits of our own collective demise. It doesn't get in the fucking way, but it can get repetitive if you don't pay attention to the lyrics.
But you're doing this Father John Misty thing wrong if you're not.
The lyrics of Pure Comedy
Let's not kid ourselves. The profound and clever lyrics are why Father John Misty's fans buy his records. The dude is the bard of our impending self-inflicted doom. So, what's new on Pure Comedy? The anger and the helplessness is still there. There are still thick layers of irony and cynicism, but the despair is turned up a notch. The title song introduces history as "the comedy of men," a self-important cosmic blunder that cannot look past itself. His take on religion is particularly satisfying in it:
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
Pure Comedy (the song) has a rather broad perspective, though. Total Entertainment Forever addresses the new era of technological triumphalism that slowly creeped up on us over the lat decade. Father John Misty opens the song with a fantasy of banging Taylor Swift every night in virtual reality, which immediately calls attention to the song. My favorite part of the song, though is the bridge where the technology enthusiasts he sings about proclaim their rejection of history and (to a certain extent) their own humanity:
No gods to rule us
No drugs to soothe us
No myths to prove stuff
No love to confuse us
That said, Father John Misty is not a very singable act. That's part of what makes his music so unique, but he's not an artist you can put in the background, hum the melody or mumble the lyrics to. He's more of a storyteller or a bard like I said earlier. I know it sounds like I'm describing someone self-important when I'm saying that, but his lyrics come from a very raw and earnest place. It's like having a conversation with a very smart friend who's breaking down his worldview not only because you asked, but because he feels alone and alienated.
The most conventionally enjoyable song on Pure Comedy and my favorite is A Bigger Paper Bag, which has this more traditional structure: verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, etc. It's a beautiful song about feelings of loneliness and disconnection. It's one of the songs that explains the fame-based loneliness the best. You either embrace something hollow based on someone you're not or you go on your own. And that chorus. There's one freakin' singable chorus on that record but it's a memorable one:
Oh, I was pissing on the flame
Like a child with cash or a king on cocaine
I've got the world by the balls
Am I supposed to behave?
The rejection of celebrity culture is a prevalent theme on Pure Comedy. It's nothing new for Father John Misty, but it's darker and more direct than ever on this record. Leaving LA, the most talked about song on Pure Comedy, is a thirteen minutes scathing takedown of the capital of entertainment in which he says Los Angeles bands sound like dollar signs and contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant. Yeouch. It's a long diatribe that flows just like an old school country music song (that again!) It has a picturesque charm to it, but I suppose you need to really hate LA in order to truly "get it."
Ballad of the Dying Man, Birdie and The Memo are the three other songs I really connected with on Pure Comedy. They have in common a vivid portrayal of the futility of living in 2017. Father John Misty addresses marketing terms such a FOMO (fear of missing out) in a raw and confrontational fashion. The titular dying man scrolled through his newsfeed one last time to see what he's going to miss out before passing away. The constant stream of news being more important to him than his own life. Sure it's biting satire, but it's also a powerful reminder that we're caught in a cycle that will stop for no one.
There are dozens of Father John Misty copycats out there and none of them are interesting because none of them understand the duality that inhabits him: he's a man for who irony and cynicism are earnestly a last line of defense against a consumption culture which is trying to incorporate him and move to the following artist. There is a vibrant and honest anger to Father John Misty's cynicism and humor and it perhaps never transpired so clearly than on Pure Comedy. It's dense and cerebral folk rock you can't really do anything else while listening to, but it offers a powerful catharsis to its listeners. I've enjoyed this album.