Josh Tillman’s third studio album as the entertainer-prophet Father John Misty, Pure Comedy, fuels all his anti-capitalist energy into one hour and 14 minutes of finely tuned lyricism. Consider Pure Comedy your new favorite existentialist summer jam, loaded with theatrically illustrated critiques of the current (sad) state of human existence.
Pure Comedy is not entirely a thematic departure from Misty’s previous folk-rock revelation I Love You, Honeybear. The tall, bearded man in groovy shirts and trendy glasses is holding a funeral for originality. His expressed disdain for the entertainment industry, however, is not just for show. Misty cut a post-election festival appearance last year short with a rant about the role of entertainment in politics and how “stupidity just runs the fucking world.” He’s not entirely wrong.
Bearing straight for the heart of the monster, the eponymous six-minute opening track berates the hypocrisy of established religion. Before his rise to the high priesthood of American folk, the former Fleet Foxes drummer was raised strictly Episcopalian, with little access to non-secular music. Hearing the lyrics for “Pure Comedy” is more than enough to make you feel a tinge of that good old Catholic guilt Misty is so fond of. By the fourth verse (“Oh, their religions are the best/They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed”), it’s pretty much clear that this ain’t your parents’ folk-rock album.
Despite all the piano-backed droll and dreariness, “Birdie” offers some semblance of hope, just not for the humans (“Take off little winged creature/It’s nothing but falling debris, strollers, and babies down there”). It’s a pretty melody, but who the hell uses the words “metadata in aggregate” in a song?
The 13-minute long “Leaving LA”, which took Misty three years to write, is a chorus-less critique of LA’s pervasive culture of decadence and depravity and the “LA phonies and their bullshit bands.” Misty pleads, “Oh baby it’s time to leave/Take the van and the hearse down to New Orleans,” where he and his wife Emma lived for a period of time before relocating to Los Angeles. But Misty cannot truly separate himself from the entertainment industry, no matter how much anti-establishment sentiment he professes (“Oh great, that’s all we need/Another white guy in 2017/Who takes himself so goddamned seriously”). All this angst, coming from a guy who sarcastically covered Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” in his best Lou Reed impression.
Pure Comedy does, however, abandon the spunk and spirit apparent in his previous work. There are no tongue-in-cheek nods to popular culture, just biting jabs at religion, capitalism, and whatever else pisses off a white dude off these days. Much like an assigned reading in a lower-div Philosophy class, Pure Comedy is meaningful and contemplative, yet not particularly exciting, even if he kind of sounds like Elton John on the track “Two Wildly Different Perspectives.” We don’t catch a single break on the entire album, no bubbly interlude or aesthetic tunes to drive down the coast to (which Misty makes us admit is all we really want).
This album is not an easy listen or even a fun one, and shows no signs of its intention to be such. Unpacking Pure Comedy’s true intentions may take more effort than the average listener is willing to put in, but Misty boldly challenges our cognitive dissonance nonetheless. Crooning softly, “This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die,” does the undeniably talented songwriter mock our sugar-coated pop tendencies or is a brutal self-reflection the only solution he offers?
To his fans, Misty may not be the most sympathetic character, but he succeeds at being consistently and aggressively thought-provoking. As a fan, the brilliant lyricism of Pure Comedy is probably better suited for an English paper than a review (and I actually deeply enjoy writing English papers). If you want “a little less human with each release,” this album is your best Misty bet. I’m just going to go listen to “Real Love Baby” for now.