Father John Misty, Pure Comedy | Album Review
Father John Misty (Josh Tillman) delivers one of the year’s most demanding, yet well-rounded albums with ‘Pure Comedy.’
The return of Father John Misty (Josh Tillman) is BIG deal. Tillman is one of the most gifted songwriters in modern times. While he has more of a cult following as opposed to mainstream, his gifts are indisputable. Two years after releasing the painfully underrated I Love You, Honeybear (2015), he returns with his third studio album, Pure Comedy.
“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 that whoever greets the other end / is kind enough to fill us in / And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since.”
“Pure Comedy” is the centerpiece – it sets the tone of the album, both lyrically and musically. The lyrics are ambitious and pure genius, finding Father John Misty referencing societal issues including women’s rights, religion, and politics. Musically, following a mysterious opening two minutes filled with various sound effects, a relatively deliberate pace, and an ear-catching harmonic progression, a groove asserts itself. Additionally, a full palette of sounds unveils its sheer excellence.
“Total Entertainment Forever”
On “Total Entertainment Forever,” flexes his creative, wildly imaginative side. Here, he paints a picture of the new reality, which is as absurd as the lyrics he pens.
“No gods to rule us / No drugs to soothe us / No myths to prove stuff / No love to confess us / Not bad for a race of demented monkeys / From a cave to a city to a permanent party.”
Tillman takes shots at where the human race stands, ultimately foretelling how much worse it’ll progress with time. His sarcasm is both out of control yet alarmingly on point. At the end, it is clear that the future looks bleak in his eyes, a recurring theme throughout Pure Comedy.
On “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” Tillman remains sarcastic as he depicts a fictional tale of society. Ultimately, it is satirical, but in some respects, there are clear truths within his assessment. What makes this brilliant is Father John Misty’s ability to pen lyrics that are subject to multiple interpretations, including the opening verse:
“It got too hot and so we overthrew the system / ‘Cause there’s no place for human existence right here / On this bright blue marble orbited by trash / Man, there’s no beating that / It was no big thing to give up the way of life we had.”
Is he referencing physically taking care of the earth, or is he thinking bigger picture? That’s the beauty of Father John Misty. In addition to the cerebral lyrics, the production and orchestration are utterly superb.
“Ballad of the Dying Man”
“Ballad of the Dying Man” is as morbid as it sounds. Essentially, Father John Misty reflects on the temporariness of life. The dying man seems concerned about the mark he’s left. Ultimately, Tillman states it best:
“We leave as clueless as we came / From rented heavens to shadows in the cave / We’ll all be wrong someday.”
On “Birdie,” Tillman paints a picture of eventual freedom that’s freer than the bird he uses as an example.
“Some dream of a world written in lines of code / Well, I hope they engineer out politics, romance, and edifice / Two outta three ain’t bad.”
“Leaving LA” is the lengthiest song from Pure Comedy, clocking in at over 13 minutes. It is nearly impossible to sustain attention for such a long duration. “Leaving LA” comes close, if it doesn’t achieve the feat. Essentially, Father John Misty reflects on his own life, things he’s learned, alongside adding some humorous references. 10 verse songs are a rarity, but only Josh Tillman can pull this juggernaut off successfully.
“A Bigger Paper Bag”
He remains up to his old, clever, lyrical tricks on “A Bigger Paper Bag.” The song opens with a bang: “Dance like a butterfly and drink like a fish.” The lyrics are a play on the immortal slogan by the late, great Muhammad Ali. From Tillman’s perspective, he focuses on the powerful alcohol and other demons, which the title clearly suggests. The key lyrics of “A Bigger Paper Bag” represent the chorus:
“Oh, I was pissing on the flame / Like a child with cash or a king on cocaine / I’ve got the world by the balls / Am I supposed to behave?”
Again, multiple interpretations can be made in regards to the chorus. Essentially, it seems Father John Misty has everyone drunk off what he’s offering, so therefore, he can do whatever he wants. After elevating himself (or the character he plays) on a pedestal, he goes on to criticize himself.
“When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”
“When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” ranks among the elite moments from Pure Comedy. Father John Misty criticizes God on numerous occasions, hence, feeding into agnosticism and atheism. How does he criticize God? Through criticizing his creation – humans. Tillman speaks ill of society and humans throughout the course of Pure Comedy, and “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” is no different:
“Oh, it’s just human, human nature / We’ve got these appetites to serve / You must not know the first thing about human beings / We’re the earth’s most soulful predator / Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored.”
On follow up “Smoochie,” Tillman pays ode to his wife. He criticizes himself, admitting his shortcomings, but thanks her for being supportive through thick and thin.
“You stand alongside / And say something to the effect / That everything’ll be alright soon, smoochie.”
“Two Wildly Different Perspectives”
Literally, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” covers just that – two wildly different perspectives.
“One side says / Y’all go to hell / The other says / If I believed in God, I’d send you there.”
Interesting, the response that he personally has to both sides is pitch-perfect:
“…But either way we make some space / In the hell that we create / on both sides.”
“Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is open to multiple interpretations. That said, it seems he’s referencing the dangers of politics. The polarization caused by both sides is at an all-time high, with the back-n-forth between both creating hell.
“The Memo” is all over the place lyrically. The result, hence, is more, lyrical genius from the singer/songwriter. As always, he speaks on everything that’s messed up with American society as a whole. Among the gems:
“I’m gonna take five young dudes / From white families / I’m gonna mount ‘em on a billboard / In the middle of the country / I’m gonna tell everybody / they sing like angels with whiter teeth…”
Penultimate number “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” finds Father John Misty desiring to hold onto youth as long as possible. He knows it’s impractical, but he’s clinging to it as long as he can. Pure Comedy closes on a high note with “In Twenty Years or So,” which questions the importance of the human race, earth, the universe – the whole shebang.
“Oh, I read somewhere / That in twenty years / More or less / This human experiment will reach its violent end / But I look at you / As our second drinks arrive / The piano player’s playing ‘This Must Be the Place’ / And it’s a miracle to be alive.”
Ultimately, Father John Misty delivers an exceptional album with Pure Comedy. Pure Comedy is a more demanding listen compared to I Love You, Honeybear. Even so, it’s also more ambitious than Honeybear. Tillman is among the most gifted songwriters in modern times, able to blend the serious, the humorous, and the satirical seamlessly. Once more, he works his magic on Pure Comedy, even if it requires more processing.
Gems: “Pure Comedy,” “Total Entertainment Forever,” “Ballad of the Dying Man,” “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” & “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”