By Sam Mosher, E23 Reporter
Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy” demands an attentive listener.
I don’t say that as a critic. I say that because Father John Misty himself demands you listen to his lyrics, which are the most interesting part of “Pure Comedy”. Without these lyrics, the album becomes incredibly forgettable, as much of its 75 minute duration sounds the same.
“Pure Comedy” has Father John Misty (also known as Josh Tillman) at his most critical, even more than his last album, 2015’s “I Love You, Honeybear”. On “Honeybear”, Tillman opened up about his recent marriage in a brutally honest, but sincere way.
He sang about their sex life and the relationship’s flaws, but also championed his love for his wife in a way that felt true and personal in a way that most generic love songs do not.
One of my favorite tracks from “Honeybear” was “Bored in the USA”, in which Tillman parodied the ballads sung by other white singer-songwriters. He lamented his American education, prescription drugs and subprime loans, complete with a laugh track to mock his mockery.
“Pure Comedy” is the continuation of his analysis of American society found in “Bored in the USA”.
Tillman starts the album by highlighting the ironies of humankind in the title track, “Pure Comedy”. These include being born with half-developed brains, spending fortunes to feed children junk food, and America’s recently elected officials. “Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy,” Tillman sings in the chorus.
The following track, “Total Entertainment Forever”, targets the rapid evolution of technology and today’s constant need for entertainment. It also features brilliantly energetic saxophones.
Track three, “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”, continues Tillman’s streak of legitimately funny lyrics by describing a revolution following a climate crisis. “From time to time, we all get a bit restless, with no one advertising to us constantly”, Tillman sings.
Track four, “Ballad of the Dying Man”, is one of the most beautiful songs on the album. Tillman’s falsetto complements the song’s piano and guitar very well. This song chronicles the tale of a dying man wondering what the world will be like once he’s gone. Lyrics such as “In no time at all, this will the distant past” and “we leave as clueless as we came” are particularly resonating.
Halfway through the album, “Leaving LA” has Tillman targeting himself in a 13 minute ballad about his experience in the music industry. He sings about wearing a mask of “tragedy” and being “another white guy in 2017 who takes himself” too seriously. He even mocks the song’s length and lack of chorus, joking that he will lose fans who “used to like this guy”.
These five songs signify the best of what “Pure Comedy” has to offer. They are funny, interesting songs with inspired and truly creative lyrics.
With that being said, the rest of “Pure Comedy” mostly becomes a slog, especially from a musical standpoint. “Pure Comedy” is almost an opposite of 2015’s “Honeybear” in this way.
“Honeybear” was crammed with interesting musical ideas like mariachi bands (“Chateau Lobby #4”), raspy vocals (“The Ideal Husband”) and the aforementioned laugh track.
In my opinion, “Total Entertainment Forever” is the only song from “Pure Comedy” that could musically fit in with the tracks on “Honeybear”. Its lively percussion, use of saxophones, and ability to slow down at the end make it one of the most complex songs on the album.
Ignoring “Total Entertainment Forever”, “Pure Comedy” largely never ventures away from ballads backed by a piano, guitar and occasional percussion. There are a few interesting musical inclusions like the gospel choir in “Ballad of the Dying Man” and the light strings backing “Leaving LA”, but much of the album sounds too similar.
Near the end, the album is almost sleep inducing, as Tillman decreases his vocal sarcasm and his lyrics become less interesting. Other than “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”, which is a great song about today’s political climate, the second half of “Pure Comedy” mostly hammers in the point that human nature and our “ungodliness” has made our world a bad place (“When the God of Love Returns, There’ll Be Hell to Pay”) and our species constantly craves entertainment, even if it is crass and distasteful (“The Memo”).
“Pure Comedy” becomes even harder to finish as uninteresting instrument solos are included that may as well be silence (“So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”).
To end on a few positives, Tillman’s voice absolutely carries “Pure Comedy”. He has a truly compelling voice. He sells his songs, no matter how satirical they become. Few singers could get away with making lines like “Now the miracle of birth leaves a few issues to address, like, say, that half of us are periodically iron deficient” sound so good. His falsetto is beautiful, especially in “Ballad of the Dying Man” and “When the God of Love Returns”.
Lastly, while Tillman often comes across as pretentious in his music, “Pure Comedy” still has moments of true sincerity, like when he critiques himself in “Leaving LA” and the closer “In Twenty Years or So”. This sincerity is part of what made “Honeybear” so good.
In conclusion, I was disappointed by “Pure Comedy”, mostly due its musical sameness. “I Love You, Honeybear” is one of my favorite singer-songwriter albums, so maybe my expectations should be faulted. There are plenty of critics that disagree with my opinion, as it holds a 90 on Metacritic at the time of writing.
Nonetheless, “Pure Comedy” is excessively long at 75 minutes. Six tracks (the title track, “Total Entertainment Forever”, “Before the Revolution”, “Ballad of the Dying Man”, “Leaving LA” and “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”) offer interesting lyrics and are musically interesting as well. The rest of the album is too repetitive, in terms of both lyrics and musical style.
Tillman’s amazing voice helps redeem some of the second half of “Pure Comedy”, but this being said, even his voice cannot save songs like “Smoochie” and “Magic Mountain” from being a slog.
Tillman’s vocals, lyrics, and signature humor will make the album worthwhile for fans of his work, and while I passionately suggest checking out its first half, I cannot recommend “Pure Comedy” as a whole.