Father John Misty ‘Pure Comedy’ – Review

17 Apr

Let’s get something clear to start with – Father John Misty is an incredible talent. His singing voice is angelic and his instinct for harmony (as exemplified with both Fleet Foxes and in his solo work) is almost unparalleled in contemporary indie rock. At his best he’s also a brilliant lyricist; sharp, imaginative, funny, incisive and often extraordinarily insightful. All these skills coalesced in 2015 on the excellent ‘I Love You Honeybear’, a record that struck a very fine balance between cynicism and enthusiasm, disillusionment and passion.

There was one outlier, both musically and lyrically, that left a more sour taste. The miserable ‘Bored in the U.S.A’ was more overtly political than the other tracks. Over moody piano noodling, canned laughter and opulent strings, Misty sarcastically saluted the flag. It sounded misjudged in the context of that album, and the last thing anyone walked away from it thinking was “can we please have a whole record of that.” But with ‘Pure Comedy’ that’s what we’ve received. A whole 74 minutes of it.

Outwordly, this is a record about how messed up the world is. Really though, it’s all about Josh Tillman himself. You might really dislike him, and he knows it, so he’s going to get in there first. As he told the guardian last month, “I’m not bamboozled by the fact that people are disgusted by me. I’m not my biggest fan either.” This forms part of his complicated defence mechanism. He makes self awareness seem like an almost chronic disability. He already has an answer for every criticism, and then he raises you one. Reading his interviews is exhausting, and keeping up with him on this album is no easier. The problem is, if you’re going to preach a political sermon about how crummy everything is, you better make the congregation like you first. Misty doesn’t seem bothered if people like him; In fact he seems to actively court unpopularity. Taking down music critics, and even Ryan Adams, is one thing, but Taylor Swift as well? And what had 6music djs Ratcliffe and Maconie done to cause him upset?

One thing that radiates in abundance on ‘Pure Comedy’ is Misty’s scorn for the human race. ‘Not bad for a bunch of demented monkeys’, he barks tellingly on ‘Total Entertainment Forever’. The way he talks about his fellow humans on the title track- sneeringly as ‘them’ and ‘they’ – and refers to leaders as ‘goons’ (perhaps not unfairly) as if he were above everyone else, only adds to the negative impression. ‘I Love You Honeybear’ worked so well because Misty’s sincerity bubbled below his dark humour and sarcasm. It was an internal wrestling match rendered fascinating by gorgeous melodies, harmonies and inventive arrangements. On ‘Pure Comedy’ his sincerity is inscrutable and the sheer length of the record, with its downbeat, repetitive musical ideas, makes the album feel like an unfurling, never ending nightmare. An overlong, indulgent, self obsessed, nihilistic slog, inflated with ideas of self-importance. Perhaps Misty’s tone would be more bearable if his subjects weren’t so tedious. He chooses easy targets – the religious right, superficial LA, modern art, hipsters, pop stars – and tries to take them down in the most smug ways possible. We shouldn’t be prepared to grant Father John Misty the title of Genius simply because he sits behind a piano and preaches angelically about a multitude of contemporary sins. There is nothing about ‘Pure Comedy’ that is innovative or original – nothing that Randy Newman or Paul Simon didn’t do much more smartly and savagely decades ago.

If you can stomach the sarcasm, scorn and general bad feeling then you will find Misty still has a sharp wit. When his observations carry less menace he is able to convey some interesting ideas – about narcissism in particular. Take for example ‘Ballad of the Dying Man’: the dying man in question pauses before taking his final breath and checks his news feed, to see what he is going to miss – ‘and it occurs to him a little late in the game / we leave as clueless as we came.’ Moments that so elegantly combine humour, clarity and wisdom were easy to find on ‘I Love You Honeybear’ but here they are frustratingly few. Still, listen to any given song in isolation and you’re likely to feel a whole lot more forgiving. Ive just sat through the ten minute ‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’ and it sounds lush and opulent, particularly the final three minutes. But listened to sequentially, this song arrives over an hour in to the record, after a string of similarly paced, similarly ironic, similarly long, similarly moody, similarly disdainful songs. Perhaps over every other fault, that’s the most damning; the album is just too boring musically. There’s only so far that voice, those melodies, and those harmonies will take you – not as far as Father John Misty imagines.

3.5/10

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