Written by Kat Manos
If you know even a little about Father John Misty, you know that he’s a complicated man. Joshua Tillman AKA J. Tillman AKA former drummer of indie rock-folk band Fleet Foxes AKA Father John Misty has released his third album Pure Comedy from Sub Pop this week, following the disturbingly romantic and much-revered I Love You, Honeybear in 2015 and the folksy-pop, hippie soiree Fear Fun in 2012.
On a superficial level, a cynical read of Pure Comedy results in thinking it’s just another Josh Tillman navel-gazing diatribe on The State Of The World in politically-exhaustive 2017; but a man who calls himself Father John Misty is clearly neither superficial nor cynical, so that reading is both too easy and missing the point.
Each of Misty’s albums, like himself, is a bit of a character that is equal parts contrived, ironic, and put-on, and painstakingly honest, raw, and real. On a recent Swedish podcast, Father John Misty explained to host Fredrik Strage that he created a character to perform for each album: Fear Fun was led by “The Weird American,” I Love You, Honeybear brought forth “The Ideal Husband,” and Pure Comedy will be presented by “The Comedian.” Just in the way that a great comedian’s craft in the form of a witty joke, or knockout punchline, can function on several levels, so does Pure Comedy. If Fear Fun was a meta-commentary on hippie music and I Love You, Honeybear was an exploration of romantic relationships, then this new album is Misty’s preoccupation with humanity, the human condition, and time itself.
The first layer on the record to peel back is clearly an existential one; like Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear before it, pieces of Pure Comedy work as an excuse for Misty to turn inward. Most notably, “Leaving LA” is a 13-minute, sprawling picaresque of Josh and his wife abandoning the indulgence of LA and taking up residence in the Southern Gothic of New Orleans in 2014. In it, he sings about himself and his own music as the subject:
“I dreamt of garnering all rave reviews / […] He’s a national treasure now, and here’s the proof / In the form of his major label debut.” Strangely, this existential preoccupation comes across as hopeful in its self-awareness, as if to protect Misty from endless hubris when he admits, “Mara taunts me ‘neath the tree / She’s like, ‘Oh great, that’s just what we all need / Another white guy in 2017 / who takes himself so goddamn seriously’.” You can’t help but find the comedy and strange hope in Misty’s irony when he admits that he’s becoming “a little less human with each [album] release / closing the gap between the mask and me.”
Unlike Father John Misty’s previous works, Pure Comedy takes the time to additionally analyze the world outside the strange encounters in Josh Tillman’s head. While “The Memo” comments on the artificial creation of commercial art and music, “Total Entertainment Forever” pans virtual reality as empty entertainment, and “Ballad of the Dying Man” critiques the critique of a dying critic afraid to miss his newsfeed, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” shines light on American bipartisanship in what feels like the most overtly political song on the record.
Again, with Misty’s scrutiny of these issues so prominently displayed, it’s easy to assume that he cynically believes the world is disenfranchised and coming to an end. But that seems too reductive after taking into account the album’s title song, “Pure Comedy.” The song opens with the nearly iconic-sounding lyrics, “The comedy of man starts like this / Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips” and unravels into discussion of celestial virgins, godless animals, and prisons of beliefs before ending in “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.” This sliver of hope is merely that – a sliver – but it’s not coincidental that it arises at the beginning and end of an album that mostly feels preoccupied with the human condition’s disarray.
The final track on Pure Comedy brings the reoccurring theme of time to its apex in a perfectly circular way that mirrors that previously mentioned sliver of hope. In “In Twenty Years Or So,” Misty’s singing gives away to minutes of instrumentals after identifying the world as a rock “hurtling through space” and life “on a speck on a speck on a speck.” Humanity – like hope and time – is circular and infinite in a humorous way for him. We are first born too big for our mother’s hips and also, Donald Trump – a former host of a reality TV show – is the President of the United States. Ha ha. Tillman asserts a time limit on “this human experiment,” though he mention that “it’s a miracle to be alive.” The threat of time and the world and other people and the artifice of entertainment hovers over humanity, though Misty quiets our thoughts until the album’s end, repeating, “There’s nothing to fear / There’s nothing to fear / There’s nothing to fear.”
Pure Comedy is ambitious, all-encompassing, and a bit absurd – like any great comedian telling a series of great jokes. Father John Misty created the perfect comedian with the perfect set: 75-minutes of existential dread, explorations of human nature, worries about time, and the end of the world, but peppered throughout with hopeful laughter. He created pure comedy.