By Jordan Aaron, Sawdust Editor
“Another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so god damn seriously,” Josh Tillman (better known as Father John Misty) croons in his 13-minute epic of a song, “Leaving LA.” Pure Comedy is sarcastic and earnest, cynical and optimistic, damning and accepting. It’s also quite long – probably too long.
The album starts off with a six-minute title track that announces all of humankind’s ill wills and misdeeds, calling it pure comedy — “something that a madman would conceive.” This track serves as a sort of thesis for the album: humanity is doomed by how much it craves being entertained. It’s a condemnation. At this point, we realize that this record is going to feel a bit like Zarathustra coming down from the mountain, and at times that can be quite frustrating. Certainly “Birdie” and “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” had me checking my watch (as if I wear a watch) saying, “Alright we get it, dude.”
But that isn’t to say the album gets boring. This is certainly the heavenly Father’s most ambitious musical effort, sporting instrumentals that remind me of mid-1970s Brian Eno, melodies reminiscent of Elton John songs, and song structures that mimic the long, chorus-less songs of Bob Dylan (or Bobby D for short). There are luscious strings, vocal ensembles, synthesizers, brass ensembles, and, my favorite, mellotrons.
The music does quite the job at building a sense of dystopia. The horns in “Pure Comedy” and “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution” present a soundscape that tracks the collapse of modern society as we know it. This is countered with some folk-songwriting that shows Father John Misty accepting humanity for what it is. By the end of the record, we get synthesizers and orchestras on “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” and “In Twenty Years or So” that culminate to simple, stripped down string arrangements as he sings, “There’s nothing to fear.” The music accompanies the journey quite well and is quite fitting to the lyrics.
On “Leaving LA,” Father John Misty sings about finally abandoning Los Angeles. It’s the longest, and most stripped down song on the album and it’s also the most genuine. He sings about how he is inherently implicit in the comedy he sings about and, like a good midpoint, it mirrors the climax of the album. On “Magic Mountain,” he accepts the behavior inherent in humanity. This is a real flip flop from when he satirically sings “When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes, plugged into our hubs, skin and bones.”
There are times where this contradiction doesn’t work. The lyrics on “Two Wildly Different Perspective” comment on the disagreeable nature of humanity, but feels like a man complaining while watching CNN in a bar at two in the afternoon, and “Birdie” retreads ground already covered elsewhere on the album.
It’s a slow burn, but Pure Comedy is an insightful time capsule of the irreverent, entertainment-obsessed nature of society. But it’s moments of optimism are what makes it palatable. At the end of the album, the world hasn’t been saved, and in fact, is at the brink of apocalypse, but in that moment, one can’t help to feel like there really is nothing to fear.