Father John Misty tackles broad concepts in “Pure Comedy”

13 April 2017
Ethan Veenker, Apprentice Editor

Two years since the groundbreaking record “I Love You, Honeybear,” Josh Tillman creates an album that’s less musically advanced but lyrically outstanding.

David Foster Wallace, one of America’s great modernist writers and an outspoken critic of irony in American culture, would have absolutely hated Father John Misty. A pseudonym for musician Josh Tillman, Father John Misty is the embodiment of irony. Years of sincere music under the name “J. Tillman” and a period of drumming for Fleet Foxes landed him in 2012 with “Fear Fun,” a fun folk album that provided humorous insights into drugs, misogynism and “hipster culture.” Three years later, “I Love You, Honeybear” was released to overwhelming acclaim, and for good reason. Focusing mostly around the courtship and marriage to his wife, Emma, “I Love You, Honeybear” is one of the most sincere albums in existence, while simultaneously keeping the cynical views that were established for Father John Misty’s character in “Fear Fun.” Last Thursday at midnight, instead of the scheduled release date of Friday, Father John Misty released his third album: “Pure Comedy.”

It’s the first order of business to address what exactly Father John Misty is. “I Love You, Honeybear” brought him his most mainstream acknowledgement to date, but that album isn’t entirely a love-based record. There are plenty of sardonic commentaries through tracks like “Bored in the USA” and “Holy Shit.” The record performs an interesting task of combining Josh Tillman with Father John Misty, perhaps to the detriment of “Pure Comedy.” What I mean by this is that the critics of “Pure Comedy” don’t seem to understand that Father John Misty is a character; Josh Tillman doesn’t wake up every morning sharing the same thoughts as the ones his character sings on stage. No, Father John Misty is a carefully curated embodiment of pretension and 21st century apathy through which Tillman can express himself, ironically or not. It’s a shame to see “Pure Comedy” being written off as “another white guy with nothing new to say,” because it’s clear that people with these opinions shamelessly misunderstand what Father John Misty is. If anything, he’s on their side. He’s absolutely the type of guy who would sing a song about “the comedy of man” and then step offstage to scoff at another 30-something white guy with fine-trimmed facial hair that sings about, say, a cultural divide between American generations. As I’ve previously stated, Father John Misty is a painfully self-aware representation of irony and cynicism.

Yet, just like his previous album, Tillman lets slivers of sincerity slide their way in-between the cracks of irony. The 13-minute track titled “Leaving LA,” for example, seems to be as personal as we’ve heard Tillman get through the Father John Misty moniker. Yes, in this regard, “Pure Comedy” can be compared to “I Love You, Honeybear,” only that it’s half-an-hour longer. The 13-track titan of a record clocks in at one hour and 14 minutes.
The album starts with a sudden blare of sampled fanfare before strange radio noises intervene and a somber piano takes place alongside Tillman’s voice, singing the first words: “The comedy of man starts like this.” Thus, the tone of the album is set. Where “Fear Fun” dealt with a myriad of problems amidst the issues of the 20-something and “I Love You, Honeybear” dealt primarily with love and Tillman’s recent marriage, it seems that “Pure Comedy” is going to be rather introspective and political in nature. And that it is. The first track, also titled “Pure Comedy,” is sung from an outside perspective observing the human race. “Their religions are the best, they worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed,” “their languages just serve to confuse them,” “they build fortunes poisoning their offspring.” These three lines are just a taste of the tongue-in-cheek pretension that Tillman delivers in this song. It’s important to remember here that, while Father John Misty is a character, Tillman uses him to express genuine concerns. Granted, he does so through cynical and humorous ways, but given his interview presence and the more serious, somber tones of his last musical project, J. Tillman, the face value of the lyrics vaguely seem to represent Tillman’s actual views.

It doesn’t slow down with the first track, however. Thinking back to David Foster Wallace, the famed crusader against irony, we come to the second track: “Total Entertainment Forever.” It’s definitely the most musically interesting song on the album, which is a bit of a shame considering it’s placed rather early on. The acoustic lead and restrained drumset keep a constant and rather energetic beat alongside the poppy piano. The refrain finds itself backed by a lovable trio of saxophones, and the intermeshing of these elements make the song overwhelmingly cheerful. It’s ironic, as the song laments the fall of human culture to mindless entertainment, making various references to David Foster Wallace’s famous novel “Infinite Jest.”

With that track out of the way, we’re left with an unfortunate truth. Father John Misty’s previous albums were always rich lyrically but also musically. “Pure Comedy” seems to be the weakest album from a purely musical stance that he has yet to release. This isn’t to fault the album, necessarily; it’s clear that the real treasure lies within the lyrics. It is slightly disappointing, however, to know that you’ve crested the mountain peak with “Total Entertainment Forever.” Most of the other 11 tracks are very ballad-esque in nature, containing perhaps only of a piano or an acoustic guitar, a drumset and Tillman’s smooth voice. There are a few tracks, like “Things it Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” and “Smoochie” which have lucid moments that break the monotonous musical theme of the record, but it can mostly be lumped into a general “minimalist folk” description.

That all being said, “Pure Comedy” is a fantastic album. The understated instrumentation works fabulously alongside the shamelessly overstated lyrical content. Tracks like “Leaving LA,” “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” and “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” just wouldn’t work if they were paired with an instrumental performance that made me want to dance. It’s clear that Tillman wants you to listen, because in this album more than any other he seems to peel the ironic curtain back a little bit. He’s known for getting bored with things rather quickly (as stated several times in “Fear Fun”), so is it unfair to assume that the Father John Misty character is undergoing some plastic surgery? Perhaps, but such conjecture is impossible to definitively place for the time.

We are instead left to attempt to digest this ridiculously long record. “Pure Comedy” is daunting, it’s dense, it’s filled to the brim with references and double-meanings that one can’t help but think that Tillman certainly had David Foster Wallace in mind while creating the record. The track “The Memo” ends with a few terrifyingly self-referential lines: “do you usually listen to music like this?” with robotic voices repeating things like “music is my life,” “this is totally the song of my Summer” and just the word “irony” over and over. It’s amazing how Tillman manages to be so simultaneously subtle and blunt through Father John Misty.

Maybe David Foster Wallace was right and irony really is a leech on our society. Maybe he’s wrong. Either way, I can’t help but find myself enjoying this album. I can’t help but feel that, after awhile, I may be a bit better as a person because of it. I’ve always been interested in what Tillman has to say, and his ability to make me laugh and cringe has not gotten any less potent. I say find yourself a dark room and an hour-and-a-half of free time to listen to this one. Plop yourself down, grab some snacks and find a nice corner to stare at. Try to look past the painfully pretentious vocalist and search for the meaning that concurrently rests on the surface and just beneath it.