There will be no casual audience for Father John Misty’s latest studio album Pure Comedy. Any time appropriate for listening to the album will not be spontaneous, brief, or passive. The headiness associated with any Father John Misty release is multiplied here by an unverifiable amount of times over and any recommendation of Pure Comedy for listening should be accompanied by an obligatory warning: this album is not a comforting experience. It would be nice to have the romantic jest and the lush sounds of I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop, 2015) rehashed as a therapeutic remedy to 2016. But that is not what we need and that is not what Father John Misty is interested in. As we toil with the consequences of an election year gone awry and ready ourselves for the consequences of upcoming developments, how can we approach art, life, or anything with leisure?
On Pure Comedy, Father John Misty (née Josh Tillman) tackles everything between political antichrists, the digital human experience, heavy-handed religiosity, and warring ideologies. The album is simultaneously a self-interrogation and an interrogation of the broader public’s role in enabling the current state of the union. But the questions that Tillman dares to ask are amorphously oblique and daunting. “Has commentary been more lucid than anybody else?” the protagonist asks on single “Ballad of the Dying Man.” Tillman’s choice of subject matter is certainly ambitious, but it is appropriate and well-deserved for him to take on. He dares to confront the most difficult questions looming over the nation, forgoing an altruistic or omnipotent approach for one that is genuinely vulnerable, concerned, and ultimately limited by his humanity.
Tillman’s signature backhanded humor is almost exclusively sarcastic on Pure Comedy, in contrast to I Love You, Honeybear’s facetious moments. Pure Comedy focuses a critical lens on modern society’s cultural practice, socio-political choices, and value set. “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift / After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes” goes the opening lines to “Total Entertainment Forever.” Tillman’s criticisms are unsparing and pessimistic, a fitting match to the balladic tone of the album’s instrumentals. Melancholic pianos form the foundations of nearly every song on Pure Comedy, achieving a quality comparable to any Carole King-James Taylor collaboration on “Ballad of the Dying Man” and a Billie Joel theatricality on “Total Entertainment Forever.”
The album becomes a manifesto at its longest and most epic moments. “Leaving LA” and “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” clock in at 14 and 10 minutes respectively. The songs take listeners on a real-time tour of Tillman’s disgruntled headspace as he commutes from his home to the highway and convey the unsatisfactory and fleeting experiences of life in Los Angeles. In these songs, listeners will find themselves introspectively protracted. They are the negative spaces to an album densely packed with lyrics that offer more questions than answers concerning humanity's current condition, but not for a lack of trying to ascertain resolution.
Through Pure Comedy's satire, Tillman does his best to offer solutions to the world’s problems, but he does not pretend to know the answers to all of them. He has no qualms about identifying societal shortcomings and challenging listeners to question whether or not they have been complicit with the regression of society’s development. He laments the ways in which our aspirations have incurred woeful externalities, telling Zane Lowe “When the internet came out it was like, this is the truest form of democracy that human beings have ever invented, this is gonna be the utopia. And you fast forward and it’s pornography.” Pure Comedy is a sobering experience and a memorandum outlining the faults in our current condition as a society and species. For some, this album will reek of an artist taking himself too seriously, but this is a gravitas that deserves applause. When was the last time you put yourself on the line by voicing your complaints? Did you try to solve them afterwards too?