By Alex Southey
Father John Misty is worth listening to because of the work his listeners must put forth in order to understand him. There’s nothing he does that can be taken at face value, whether it’s a song, album, interview, or short film, because, as he admits himself, it’s all for show. He admits this in many ways: he smirks at whatever camera happens to be trained on him, he over-exaggerates already melodramatic stage antics.
FJM gets away with this because he is an acknowledged character; a moniker with which former somber songwriter Josh Tillman can (ironically) express a different, truer side of himself. Father John Misty is an exuberant, attention-seeking, self-serious singer – one who takes pleasure in what sometimes feels like performance art. In all of his music, it’s clear Misty’s usually making fun of someone, but on Pure Comedy, the third album he’s released as Father John Misty, Tillman sets his sardonic sights on making fun of humanity and existence in general.
In 2011, Tillman released his first album as Father John Misty, the wandering, folk-rocking Fear Fun, which may be the piece of art most clearly related to the Misty character to date. It leans heavily on aesthetics and musical styles established in the early ‘60s and ‘70s by Kris Kristofferson and Neil Young, the latter of whom Misty name checks on the album’s free-reeling riff on life in Laurel Canyon, “I’m Writing a Novel.” In 2014, he released I Love You, Honeybear, where he continued to keep his audience at arm’s length, but draws back the curtain ever so slightly, bridging the gap in some ways between the man and the character, even though his performances then became more stylized (read: more ridiculous). On “Chateau Lobby #4” he sings, “Dating for 20 years just feels pretty civilian / I’ve never thought that / Ever thought that once in my whole life / You are my first time.” Knowing that as he wrote Honeybear he married his girlfriend turns his lyrics from interesting character-wise to touching in a more tangible, appreciable way.
Now, on Pure Comedy, an album filled to the brim with references to Misty himself, his past albums and their obsessions with romancing L.A. life, and pointed attacks on politics, love, and humanity’s exceptional ability to absorb and recycle these things, he’s his least funny – but it suits the present. Another smirking comedian, arms-crossed wearing a know-it-all persona isn’t what we need, we need someone known for jokes to revisit his old seriousness and use how big a deal that switch is to emphasize his point.
On “Leaving L.A.,” the crux of the album, it feels as though he’s pointedly acknowledging it’s time to hang up many of Misty’s most enigmatic qualities in pursuit of a more personally fulfilling, open relationship with his audience; a method that, based on the way the songs come across, and the tone with which he delivers them, makes it easier for him to comment on the present without the trouble of framing everything within the context of this other Self. Still, Tillman displays his relentless self-awareness; he’s always known exactly how he’s come across (“‘These L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands / that sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant’ / So reads the pull quote from my last cover piece / titled, ‘The Oldest Man in Folk Rock Speaks’”).
The irony of the album’s first track “Pure Comedy,” which gives the album its name, is that for the first time this isn’t in reference to his own kind of comedy, it seems like it’s a reference to everybody else’s. The song’s accompanying music video depicts (amid a chaotic swirl of crude cartoons) memes, viral Youtube clips, and political sound bites, all of which were cited and used again and again throughout the presidential campaign and for a time afterwards. For the first time Misty seems comfortable not only creating something for his fans to look at, but something he can look at too, next to them, with them, instead of across from them at a vantage point where he can take their temperature and adjust accordingly.
There is slight disappointment with Pure Comedy being made of the same (or similar) ingredients found on I Love You, Honeybear. However, there are some inspired arrangements from in-demand composers Gavin Bryars and Nico Muhly, like on the album’s penultimate track, “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain,” a song where Misty sounds tired, resigned to the fact that he’s spent too much time running from adulthood, and is therefore destined to become lost, unable to use his latent self-awareness for anything other than perspective, or at best to help others. Really, it’s gorgeous. It is reminiscent of Neil Young in style, and once that becomes clear, there’s little investigative work necessary to draw it to one of Young’s similarly themed tracks, “Sugar Mountain.” Another bright spot on an otherwise musically satisfactory album comes in the form of the Bowie, “Young Americans”-esque, “Total Entertainment Forever,” the only song that balances lyrics and music as perfectly as anything on Honeybear, where the inclusion of buzzing horns successfully distracts from the increasingly foreboding song lyrics – a method of delivery which suits them perfectly, as throughout the song Misty warns that although we’re living in the greatest age, where we seem to be our happiest, it’s all superficial happiness.
The rest of the smartest arrangements on the album should be considered as such not because they do anything splashy, but quite the opposite: they leave large space for the lyrics and Misty’s unmistakable voice (which has never sounded better).
Even with its similarities to Honeybear, the music is intoxicating, immersive, and satisfying. Still, Misty has always been a more gifted lyricist (able to translate and articulate humanity’s worst, modern insecurities) than he is a musician, which he acknowledges in a way on “Leaving L.A.” “So I never learned to play the lead guitar / I always more preferred the speaking part.”
He bookends the album with the message that none of this really matters – no matter how good or bad it all may seem. “We’re hurtling through space,” he sings on “In Twenty Years or So.” This message, which he delivers like it’s his ultimate point, contradicts a lot of what he says throughout the album’s second act. It’s an indication Misty’s as confused as we are. As he puts forth a variety of argumentative theses that tackle why the country is the way it is, where it’s headed, and why it’s headed there, it’s a comforting notion that he, too, is unable to make reasoning the present seem like it’s anything other than a method of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy, Sub Pop