'Pure Comedy' a great undertaking with mixed results

Sunday, April 9, 2017 - 4:34pm

NOSELL

Sub Pop Records

 

Two years ago, Father John Misty (originally known as Josh Tillman) proved his worth with I Love You, Honeybear. The album was a fully formed and emotional follow-up to Fear Fun, his first enterprise as “Father John Misty” since parting ways with the Fleet Foxes. Misty’s newest release, Pure Comedy, is less musically interesting than most of what he has done up until this point, but it has enough lyrical substance to keep his fan base happily questioning the meaning of life and mulling over the many shortcomings of humanity for as long as they please.

Pure Comedy starts off on a strong note. “Total Entertainment Forever” stands out in particular, calling into question the creepily dominant role that technology has come to play in our lives. The song approaches the subject from an eerie angle, and closes off with a strong stanza predicting how someday historians will find us “In our homes / Plugged into our hubs / Skin and bones / A frozen smile on every face.” The closing line, “This must have been a wonderful place,” hammers in the sinking feeling that the rest of the song has been building up: the sense that our elaborate technologies are only keeping us busy and distracted, while history trickles away all around us.

Pure Comedy sees its strongest moments when it is exploring messages like this, and to be fair, the album does a lot of exploring. Questions of the validity of millennial life and the pervasiveness of corruption ebb and flow through songs like “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” “Birdie” and “Two Wildly Different Perspectives,” and manifest in their most memorable form in “Leaving LA,” a thirteen-minute-long self-described “diatribe” that sums up a lot of the main points of the album. It’s melodically repetitive and doesn’t quite need to be thirteen minutes long, but it does include some striking and well-crafted scenes, like a van cruising past commercial billboards on its way out of L.A., and a child (presumably the young Misty) choking on a piece of watermelon candy in a JCPenney.

For all of Misty’s lyrical passion, he sometimes overshoots his target. Not all of his insights are exactly revelations; in “When the God of Love Returns,” for instance, he remarks on how the true hell is human nature, and how “this place is savage and unjust,” both of which are fair messages, although not really new ones. In addition, “Ballad of a Dying Man” notes how we leave this world “as clueless as we came,” at the end of a song that aligns Misty’s perspective with that of a dying man, even though he likely has never been one. Misty is an intelligent songwriter, but he can get carried away with his own language, just enough that it fails slightly to match up with a lot of the substance that would have been behind it.

The album also doesn’t take on very much in the way of melodic experimentation. Misty proved in I Love You, Honeybear that he was able to explore musically within an album, and there are ways in which he tries to take this in a new direction on Pure Comedy. “Birdie” makes for a cool, synthetic blend of styles, featuring electronics, piano and echoey vocals, and “The Memo” features an interesting change in tone toward the end of the song, as well as the incorporation of automated voices. The penultimate track, “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain,” also finds a gentle, artful tone with which to start closing off the album. However, since the album starts out with some variety and then regains its depth toward the end, it would have been nice to see more inventiveness throughout its duration. This is true in particular because Misty so clearly fashions the journey of the album as a sort of Odyssean exploration of the experience of humanity, and since humanity can look like so many different things, the music of the album could have reflected some more variety.

Misty clearly understood the gravity of his undertaking, since the album is nearly an hour and fifteen minutes long. He genuinely wanted to make sure that he was successfully saying what he wanted to say with Pure Comedy, and really, this is when it all comes down to the listener. Misty indulges himself in going a little overboard with his own language, and an album that tries so hard to impress lyrically could have benefited from a little more attention to the innovative potential of the music itself. However, he clearly cares about the messages he is trying to get across in terms of consumer culture and general reliance upon entertainment, and this sentiment does come through in his lyrics. In spite of the album’s shortcomings, anyone who is already a fan of Misty’s poetic habits and the less romantic, more philosophical side of his songwriting will find at least a few key messages to appreciate in Pure Comedy.