Father John Misty
Father John Misty’s new album Pure Comedy has been labelled everything from self-righteous babbling to the pinnacle of confessional and observational modern folk. And quite honestly, it is both.
Whilst his cynical reflections are self-righteous, they are also self-deprecating, and in his arrogance he also realises that he too is a cog in the self-obsessed capitalist machine. And while the music is a little one-dimensional, and it does tend to plateau, it also works to create the perfect landscape for the words and themes.
The music itself floats and prances in the background of most songs, it could be best described as new wave synth country and contemporary orchestral. It features warm piano, strings, horn, occasionally soulful guitar and Elton John style vocals and cadence.
The album is a grower, during the first listen you may find yourself wanting to skip to the next track, but if you are resolute and hang around to let the songs in, they will get under your skin and you will find yourself scribbling down his musings as countless pennies drop.
In Pure Comedy, Tillman has stepped away from writing introverted love songs, and instead writes about the world – or more acutely he writes about everything that is wrong with the world and the people in it, including himself. It is this kind of cynical, bleak outlook that is likely to get on people’s nerves.
Tillman is a wordsmith, known for how he plucks and places and groups words, and then expels them with understated vitriol. But with Pure Comedy, the writing is just not as witty or natural as it was on 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear. That is not to say the writing is not good, even when Tillman seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, it is still better than most mere mortals. With exceptional lines like “Their idea of being free, is a prison of beliefs, that they never ever have to leave”, and “The comedy of man starts like this/ Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips/ And so nature, she divines this alternative/ We emerged half-formed and hope whoever finds us on the other end is kind enough to fill us in,” both summarising the zeitgeist of modern disconnection beautifully.
The album buzzes along slowly but lushly, with ballads Pure Comedy, Total Entertainment Forever, Two Wildly Different Perspectives and Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution consisting of largely unmoving music, transcending into a sonic plateau of sorts, all while referencing the redundancy of religion and revealing his lack of spirituality.
Ballad of the Dying Man proves he hasn’t lost the knack for writing ultra-modern folk songs about un-sexy things and somehow making them sound super high-brow. With lines like “Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok/ And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked” perfectly taking aim at the sanctimonious internet trolls.
A poignant point in Revolution is when he admits cheekily that he too is part of the capitalist bullshit that he is also disgusted by: “I’ll admit I get resentful when there is a lack of convenience/ On this concrete rock that refuses to die,” he concedes. It is this kind of self-auditing and resignation that makes the album so profound, which is also driven home with lines like, “that is all we need, another self-important white guy”. He is foreseeing the critique of the album, and by getting in first, deeming it invalid.
The 13 minute Leaving LA takes him back to his folk storytelling roots. It is one of the most heartfelt songs on the album, and perhaps because it is more introspective than the other songs, it feels more at home on him. Quite simply, it is hugely believable and moving. His words and phrasing slice together like heaven, which makes sense after learning it apparently took him three years to write it.
A Bigger Paper Bag is more of an internal psychological examination, and it is so charmingly insightful and unlocking that it definitely makes up for the numbing intellectual masturbation on the album, with lines like, “You be my mirror/ But always remember/ There are only a few angles I tend to prefer” making it all worthwhile.
The album is at its strongest in tracks like Smoochie and The Memo, with Neil Young-esque guitar in The Memo and intimate confessions in Smoochie. With lines in Smoochie such as, “when the shadows inside me fight for attention, you stand beside me and say something perfect like – concealment feeds the fear,” exhibiting his finesse as a thinker. The raw guitar in the chorus of The Memo is a nice point of difference over the synth draped piano and a swells of electronic sounds, twitchings and swirlings that hang in the back of most songs on the album; it gives it a rawness that is much needed.
One of the best lines on the album is, “I’m gonna buy myself a sports team and put them in a pit,” a brilliant way to encapsulate the nonsensical and radicalness of capitalism and class warfare. Unfortunately most of Tillman’s observation on these things come across just a little condescendingly.
The album closes with In Twenty Years or So, Tillman repeating the line “there is nothing to fear” with just his voice void of music – it is a commanding ending. Despite all the fear mongering throughout, it is an idealistic and optimistic impression to leave on the audience, and the sentiment beautifully pulls together all the themes and notions on the album.
It becomes clear that Tillman has tried to write less about himself, and instead be more outward facing and write about society. And while it is important for there to be dialogue on these issues, it is equally as important that this dialogue is accessible so that the message can be received – otherwise, what is the point? If perhaps the album and the songs dragged a little less and just showcased the really masterful context, it would be a lot more engaging, and a lot more worthwhile. That said, those with the patience to give it time will reap the rewards.
This is Tillman’s final joke; he realises this about the album and does it nonetheless. He references the fact his new music will weed out the fickle. In this way, Pure Comedy is a massive middle finger up to the music and entertainment industry, and if you give the album time, you too will be joining him in this act of defiance.