Review Summary: Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward path had been lost.
On first listen, Pure Comedy’s
most impressive achievement is that it makes 74 minutes feel like 150. A pastiche of early ‘70s Elton John without the smiles, Randy Newman for the blog set, and a much more woke Gram Parsons, all set to a persistently gorgeous yet resolutely unexciting mid-tempo slog, Pure Comedy
will probably not win over many new fans for Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman. It will also likely turn off those who fell in love via the vibrant character studies of 2012’s Fear Fun
or the blood-on-his-sleeve Valentine I Love You, Honeybear
, and it will certainly provide plenty more ammo for all those who charge Tillman with having disappeared so far up his own ass that to spend any more time on him would be a sin. And the thing is – he fu
cking knows it! On “Leaving LA,” while Tillman rhapsodizes about his favorite subject (himself), he cleverly predicts the most obvious criticism of his new work, with that trademark acid tongue and a true aim, however unpalatable it may be sidled up to ten minutes plus of desultory strumming:
“And I’m merely a minor fascination to manic virginal lust and college dudes
I’m beginning to begin to see the end of how it all goes down between me and them
Some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe plays as they all jump ship
‘I used to like this guy, this new shit really kinda makes me wanna die.'”
“Leaving LA” is painfully self-aware, and appropriately painful to listen to, much like the rest of Pure Comedy
. This is a record both stunning in its conceptual vision and lyrical grasp (critics will call these greed and overreach, respectively), and a fairly boring musical experiment – although the latter is largely due to a deliberately measured production that intersperses charming moments that reveal themselves slowly, almost reticently. But Tillman’s biggest problem here is, for all of the Grand Artistic Statements being made: nothing on Pure Comedy
is particularly original. Anti-technology screeds; the vapidity of modern life; the despair and treachery of religion and politics; the general raging against the malaise and the realization that hey, we’re really all screwed: these may be dressed up with modern tropes and lyrics about having sex with Taylor Swift via virtual reality, but Tillman doesn’t really have anything new to say here. “Leaving LA” is low hanging fruit for an artist who has always been divisive, and his complaint that, “at some point you just can’t control / what people use your fake name for” must be ironic. When the only quickened pulse comes early on the comparatively wild bar-rock of “Total Entertainment Forever,” you should have something more to say than a tired critique of the horror show that is 21st-century life.
And yet – Pure Comedy
turns exhaustion into what may be termed a rewarding listen, should you give it the time it perhaps doesn’t deserve. What originally sounds like a man in love with his own voice, with songs regularly spiraling beyond six minutes seemingly only to give more time to pages and pages of lyrics, does transform into a meditative, prettily pastoral nightmare portrait of society once it sets in. A track like “Ballad of the Dying Man” is rote Father John Misty, railing against message board culture as failing to see the wider beauty beyond their computer screen: “We leave as clueless as we came / from rented heavens to the shadows in the cave / we’ll all be wrong someday.” (*hits blunt*). Tillman is more tolerable when he doesn’t take himself so seriously, as on the knowing wink on “A Bigger Paper Bag” (“Okay, you be my mirror but remember there’s only a few angles I tend to prefer”). Even better is when Tillman’s way with words match his ambitions. Consider the disgusted title track, where Tillman lays out the album’s thesis with venom disguised in a hotel piano player’s welcoming tone:
“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 us on the other end is kind enough to fill us in
And, babies, that's pretty much how it's been ever since."
Much of what saves this bloated treatise comes from the effect of that elegant production beginning to sink in. Pure Comedy
is definitively a headphones album; where I Love You, Honeybear
made you swoon with its overt eclecticism, the gems here need to be unearthed after a few excavations. The album’s pacing does not help matters, burdened with a middle section that dares you to fall asleep and counts on a deep love of Tillman’s voice, which is uniformly excellent here and that can be counted on to save a track like the soporific “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” as he does on that killer last couplet: “Oh, my Lord, we just want light in the dark / some warmth in the cold / and to make something out of nothing sounds like someone else I know.” What once sounded like a blown up, dragged out version of “Bored in the U.S.A” sequenced over and over again eventually begins to reveal crevasses and flourishes that color in Tillman’s superb voice: the apocalyptic noise that swells up in “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”; the full orchestral palette, gradually unfurling on the title track; the blurry, colorful outro to “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain.” On the whole, it’s an intimidating experience, too often gray and flowing like mud, but on a track-by-track basis few singer-songwriter albums can boast this much minute attention to simple craft.
“Magic Mountain” is the most successful marriage of the album’s staid pace, its dedication to production values, and Tillman’s laconic, world-weary vocals, appropriately woozy and nostalgic for one last moment of grace after the death and decay of the previous tracks. It’s followed by “In Twenty Years or So,” where Tillman, tired and blasé, remarks, “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.” You have to hand it to Tillman – for all the chain jerking and haranguing he goes about doing throughout Pure Comedy
, it’s hard to doubt his passion, his painstakingly detailed love for a doomed world. Pure Comedy
shoots itself in the foot too many times to become the masterpiece it longs to be, but as a singular document of its creator’s remarkably incisive wit, deep well of pathos, and thorough eye for detail, it’s hard not to fall just a little bit in love with it. Even if you never listen to it again.