Album Review: Father John Misty – ‘Pure Comedy’
Written by Conor Battles on April 11, 2017
Title: Pure Comedy
Artist: Father John Misty
Label: Sub Pop
Release Date: April 7, 2017
There is a very simple way to observe the evolution of Father John Misty since 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear.
The first words out of Josh Tillman’s mouth on Honeybear is the musical equivalent of sweet nothings; the titular sappy pet name for his wife, Emma. The rest of the album essentially serves as a meditation on love and relationships in the 21st century.
Pure Comedy begins with a thesis: “The comedy of man starts like this.”
Tillman’s meteoric rise from erstwhile Fleet Foxes drummer to indie rock darling is at this point nearing its natural peak, and with it comes a new sense of wisdom and emotional maturity that only someone on the top of their game can achieve, and that he seems desperate to share. It isn’t quite fair to say that this newfound fame and critical acclaim has gone to his head – as far as the persona of Father John Misty is concerned, it was always there.
Tillman’s work under the Father John Misty moniker takes the idea of turned on, tuned in, dropped out rockstar hedonism and imbues it with enough irony and social commentary to fuel a thousand thinkpieces. His songwriting is an endpoint in the grand tradition of exquisitely-crafted pop rock, accented with peals of rootsy Western charm. On his previous work, his characteristic snide, reflective lyrics were often buried under maximalist arrangements of strings, slide guitar, and brass. But on Pure Comedy, the writing takes center stage.
Sonically, Pure Comedy is a less varied affair than past Misty material. Sweeping piano balladry is Tillman’s favorite method of delivery here, and tracks like “Birdie” and “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” show just how proficient he can be with little more than his vocals and the ivory. That said, the endearing dabbling in Americana tradition that made I Love You, Honeybear and Fear Fun so enjoyable still shines through at times, such as the countrified acoustic strains of “The Memo” or the rollicking “Total Entertainment Forever.” The focus on more subtle production is an interesting development, but the deft musical diversity of his past releases was definitely somewhat absent throughout.
The star of Pure Comedy, however, is not its music. Tillman is as lyrically sharp as ever, but rather than ruminate on love and life, he breaches heavier topics through his writing. Though not explicitly a “political” album, the social and cultural problems in America and abroad that have reared their heads more noticeably since Honeybear‘s release have had an observable impact on Tillman’s songwriting. The title track targets the human condition and the role of religion in society, while closer “In Twenty Years or So” confronts the idea of human insignificance in the face of the cosmos. If the writing on Pure Comedy seems heavyhanded on paper, it’s only amplified by listening.
Tillman’s embracing of his new stature in rock music has emboldened him to tackle these grand topics with all the self-affirmed wisdom he can muster, but there are cracks in the facade that are far more interesting to hear. The album’s centerpiece is the 13-minute “Leaving LA,” a sprawling ballad that shifts midway through from an indictment of the Los Angeles crowd to a bitter self-reflective pill that Tillman forces himself to swallow on record.
For every eye-rolling moment of rockstar sagacity on Pure Comedy, “Leaving LA” shows that Tillman is intently aware that he doesn’t really have all the answers: “Oh great, that’s just what we all need: another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously.”
On I Love You, Honeybear, Father John Misty made an Elvis Costello record for the modern day: a thrillingly tuneful romp through the Great American Songbook that traced patterns of acrid wit through conventional songs of love and heartbreak. On Pure Comedy, he learned one page of that songbook flawlessly, and used it to sell both Bibles and snake oil with a sly smile.