Our writers, after meticulous studying of Father John Misty’s newest contribution to 2017’s music scene, have come to different conclusions and numerical ratings on his controversial album Pure Comedy. Read their interpretations below, pick a side, or not. In the words of Misty himself: “...either way we make space/ In that hell we create/ On both sides.”
PURE ASSHOLERY | REBECCA SOWELL
Josh Tillman, best known as Father John Misty, is fed up. His third full album release, Pure Comedy, is a mammoth-sized absurdist social commentary that’s filled with frustration, dread, and existentialism. The hefty amount of pretension found within the record is not particularly out of character for him—he’s notorious for long-winded rants, snarky responses in comment sections, and making interviews quite complicated. Due to his wild antics, Tillman has been transformed into a clickbait headline generator, slowly becoming the dream (and nightmare) of music journalists everywhere.
Pure Comedy is not an easy listen. The album is a sprawling 74 minutes, partly because two of the songs are between 10 and 13 minutes. Most of the songs rely on acoustic guitar, piano, and a cinematic string section, offering an apocalyptic 70s folk-esque production as a result. The album is mostly ironic, taking its sweet time for pop culture critique, revelations of the “big-picture”, and Tillman’s own personal narrative. His voice remains smooth and crooning, fit for a lullaby that invokes imagery of doom and gloom.
The album is extremely self-aware. For someone who is so determined to reject social norms and ideologies, Tillman sure does spend a lot of time trying to justify his actions. It’s clear that while he seems apathetic in many ways, he is profoundly concerned with other people’s opinions of him. His moves are all calculated carefully—he even goes as far to criticize himself in his 13-minute song, “Leaving LA”. He knows that this album is not going to be well-received among many, prompting him to jump the gun and predict his audience’s response. He sings,
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"
As a long-time fan of Father John Misty, his fatalistic message isn’t what disappoints me. I actually enjoy a good dark and cynical song (The “Pure Comedy” single was one of my most played songs when it was first released). What I can’t handle is a full hour and 14 minutes of redundant pretension. Sure, the songs are luscious and include his signature folky sway, but I didn’t feel anything after finishing the album. If anything, it left me tired and bored. It actually makes me miss the emotional vulnerability of I Love You, Honeybear and the variety of Fear Fun. His past two albums definitely had their fair share of affectation, but it was bearable because he offered an assortment of ideas and feelings. I appreciate his sentiment in Pure Comedy, but I’m not always going to be in the mood to listen to him preaching about the constraints of capitalism while I’m walking to class.
Tillman predicted that I would have this viewpoint, though. He made a conscious decision to make this album hard to digest in a way that conveys an anti-consumerist message. I appreciate his complete and total authenticity (even when he's being satirical), considering that it’s a characteristic that’s steadily disappearing within the music industry. Pure Comedy isn’t an inherently bad album and I’m still a huge fan of him—it’s just that the Pure Assholery of his stage persona has become exhausting. I mean, he even challenges God at one point, singing, “We crawled out of the darkness and endured your impatience… and now you’ve got the gall to judge us.”
The best song on the album is “In Twenty Years or So” mainly because it ends the album on a sweet note, contrasting from his intense doomsday remarks. It’s almost like he had an epiphany, singing, “The piano player’s playing ‘This Must Be The Place’ and it’s a miracle to be alive.” I love that line because it provides a bit of solace and comfort, even though we’re basically doomed (I also think “This Must Be The Place” is the greatest song of all time). The strings are absolutely breathtaking—almost reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings”—as he ends the track repeating, “There’s nothing to fear.” This song saves Pure Comedy, nearly convincing his listeners to forget the blatant despair he shoved at them earlier on in the record.
LOVABLE PRETENSION | SAM PHILLIPS
Father John Misty is your friend who used to be cool, but now has one hell of an ego. He’s the guy that sits in a coffee shop and waits for an opportunity to over explain The Doors to a girl just wearing a shirt she thought looked cool when she bought it at Forever 21. He sent people empty albums as an April Fools joke. I mean, have you ever seen an interview of him? He’s the worst. He literally spoon feeds you reasons to hate him, and I know a lot of people do, but, I just can’t. I think he’s literally a genius.
Father John Misty (born Joshua Tillman) has taken a long path to the album Pure Comedy. He previously released six almost-entirely-unknown albums under the name J Tillman. My first exposure to was him was, like many people, as the drummer and sometimes-vocalist for Fleet Foxes. I used to argue with one of my friends about who was better, him or Robin Pecknold (their main vocalist and songwriter). Tillman has gone about proving me more and more right with every FJM album he releases. On Fear Fun he shows off his inherent songwriting and composition ability, even if it is a little raw. I Love You, Honeybear sees him take a swing at a concept album and absolutely nail it. Where I Love You, Honeybear takes an inward look at his life in an incredibly sardonic and cynical way that somehow comes off as undeniably honest, Pure Comedy turns that lens outward onto the world as a whole.
The songs I’m most familiar with are, somewhat obviously, the singles “Ballad of the Dying Man”, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”, and the title track “Pure Comedy”. One of the reasons I’m so well acquainted with these songs is that I couldn’t stop listening to them in anticipation of the release date. “Pure Comedy” kicks off the album and appears to be a quasi-sequel to “Bored In The USA” from Honeybear. With the title track, Tillman orients you as a listener to the concepts he’s presenting. He’s unabashedly political, with almost impressive bipartisanism. He makes no attempt to hide this, or any other opinions for that matter.
I could probably write a thesis on Pure Comedy and honestly, I’ve already worked it out in my head. For the sake of time, I’ll just give you a moment I consider to be the highlight of the album. “Leaving LA”, a 13 minute rant that contains absolutely no hook, is probably the most personal song in this collection. He discusses his life as a whole as well as his progression as an artist. It’s also one of the most pretentious songs I’ve ever heard and I listened to it three times in a row.
He knows it’s pretentious, he just doesn’t care, he even calls out the critics who may prefer more of a Fear Fun vibe, “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.” To me there’s no other line on the album sums it up better, he’s coming out and telling the listener “I know you might hate this but I don’t care about you.” I think there’s something admirable about that.
Since I’ve just spent four paragraphs praising Tillman (and secretly hoping he googles himself, finds this article and reciprocates my love, which seems possible, right?) I do have to point out the few flaws this album contains. The main issue I have is that some of these songs run together or sound exactly the same, to the point of being almost interchangeable. It seems that he found a formula and stuck to it: slow piano open, add some witty lyrics, then build it all to a climax (or don’t, which is really the only variable). He’s lucky that he’s so good at executing it, however I’m left feeling this album lacks a track like “I’m Writing A Novel” or “Holy Shit”. You know, something that can break up the self righteous droning.
The other problem I have with this album is that the whole song “Smoochie”. It seems out of place and honestly bores me. I couldn’t make it through it more than once, I honestly can’t place why it annoyed me so much but does it really matter? While it’s only one bad song, it’s still one bad song right in the middle of a concept album.
Still, even with these mistakes, and I’m not convinced mistakes is the right word because with Tillman you get the feeling everything is the way it is for a reason, this album is amazing. If it were a book, there would be a review from The New York Times calling it a “tour de force”. This, however, is not an album made to win over new Father John Misty fans. If you like him, you’ll love this. If you despise him, here’s just more ammunition for you to build that hate on. He might be insufferable at times, but his sheer skill and presentation is enough to justify that, at least for me.
I’ve heard him discuss the end of Father John Misty before, which is, according to him, a very real possibility. This album leaves me terrified that this could be the end—that Pure Comedy is a culmination of his ideas on these topics and he’ll decide to leave it in the past and move on. However, the last song on the album, “In Twenty Years or So”, which deals with the collapse of humanity, ends on a calming note as he states “There’s nothing to fear” before letting the song, and the album, drift off into the ether.