Writing about a record like ‘Pure Comedy’ feels almost like an exercise in futility. It’s such a ceaseless critique on modern culture and society that assigning it a score seems to somewhat miss the point. Josh Tillman has been an ever-present fixture in modern indie for the past few years; an inescapable presence met with either adulation or irritation. With ‘Pure Comedy’ Tillman takes the Father John Misty act further than he’s ever done before but at times also strips it away, creating some of his most honest, heart-on-sleeve work in the process.
If the 45 minutes of Father John Misty-isms found on 2015’s ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ were too much for some, then they’ll find ‘Pure Comedy’ no more accessible. At a hefty 75 minutes, it’s an album that asks a lot of it’s listeners. Not only does it demand well over an hour of your time but it requires of its listeners a prior involvement in the world of Josh Tillman. Whilst the overt satire of ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ and ‘Ballad Of The Dying Man’ are universally accessible to all but the very people that Tillman describes in the songs, the 13 minute ‘Leaving LA’ is deeply personal to the point of bewildering casual listeners. It certainly provides plenty for Misty acolytes to sink their teeth into; but for those less invested in the bizarre, half serious- half farcical world of Tillman’s public persona, there’s little to keep them going through the majority of the album’s 75 minute runtime. Don’t, however, take that as a criticism, rather as a warning; if anything it’s a positive.
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Those looking for an easy entry point to the world of Father John Misty will not find it here but, as a result, Tillman has the room to stretch out lyrically and artistically in a way he never has before. ‘Pure Comedy’ is an album that tackles the big issues; war, politics, religion and the prison of ideology are all frequent topics here. It’s a lot to take in but those who have the perseverance to invest time and energy into the album will be richly rewarded. ‘Pure Comedy’ is a record that very much puts its lyrics first. It’s not to say that it’s musically sparse – far from it, in some instances – but the band always exist to serve the singer. It’s a decision that makes sense given the weighty subject matters tackled throughout the album but it does have the side effect of creating an album that rarely excels musically.
Regardless of the album’s lofty ambition, it’s hard to get away from the fact that ‘Pure Comedy’ is overwhelmingly long. Sonically, it’s not particularly varied; the majority of pieces are based around piano, with string and brass arrangement rarely far behind. It’s an album with an overt ’70’s singer-songwriter aesthetic, hinting that Tillman may have become the Townes Van Zandt or James Taylor of the smartphone age. Had the album been twenty minutes shorter the lack of variety wouldn’t have been much of an issue; but the album’s considerable length makes the repetitive instrumentation one of the album’s few real flaws.
‘Pure Comedy’ makes only a handful of concessions to accessibility but when it does the results stand as some of the most effortlessly enjoyable material on the album. Singles ‘Ballad Of The Dying Man’ and ‘Two Wildly Different Perspectives’, though both lyrically heavily loaded, have the melodic immediacy that much of the rest of the album lacks. Whilst there’s ultimately more depth to be found in the album’s more difficult material, it’s certainly a welcome relief during initial listens to have a handful of more immediate songs peppered throughout the album – guiding the listener like beacons through the nebulous dark that much of ‘Pure Comedy’ can initially appear to be. ‘Pure Comedy’ is undoubtedly an album that rewards obsessive play; those sufficiently enamoured by the album’s spell will find a record fit to return to for years – as deep and complex as it is challenging and bizarre.
There are moments of open-hearted sincerity that see Tillman strip away the mask of Misty altogether, creating some of the album’s most affecting moments in the process. Album closer ‘In Twenty Years Or So’ delivers a shockingly poignant ending with the closing words “I read somewhere that in twenty years more or less, 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. There’s nothing to fear”. After a 75 minute rollercoaster that takes a desperate look at the state of the world, it’s a surprising way to end the album but it works amazingly well. It’s all too easy to over-simplify Father John Misty as a figure that only deals in caricature and satire but ultimately there’s an aching pathos at the heart of ‘Pure Comedy’ and the album is at its best when this is most on show.
It’s hard to know quite what to make of ‘Pure Comedy’. It’s incredibly ambitious, lyrically deep and it manages to be both steeped in the self-created mythos of Father John Misty whilst simultaneously being the most honest album Tillman has made under the name. It’s a record that is by turns wonderful and frustrating – but for all its ups and downs, one thing remains clear: Josh Tillman has ascended to a new level of songcraft with ‘Pure Comedy’.