STAFF PICK: Pure Comedy by Father John Misty
Mike Powell described Father John Misty’s 2015 record I Love You, Honeybear, among other things, as “so cynical it’s repulsive, and so openhearted it hurts.” Many interviewers – even FJM himself – seemed to dwell on the marked increase of vulnerability, as it seemed he was bearing his soul. This vulnerability was mostly of the openhearted nature, namely emotional vulnerability. Indeed, nine of the eleven tracks were deeply personal love songs.
The penultimate two songs, ‘Holy Shit’ and ‘Bored in the USA,’ of course, were of the repulsively cynical nature; they exhibited intellectual vulnerability. This distinction is important, but I believe that the “repulsive” nature of the record came not from FJM’s cynicism, but from his painful self-awareness. This bleeds into every part of his work – even his love songs. This self-awareness saturates every word he writes, and compels him not only to be soul-crushingly honest, but also to ironically apologize for it. Notwithstanding, these two tracks signaled the fear that was to come in Pure Comedy.
Pure Comedy is comprised almost entirely of these commentaries. If you’ve been following FJM in the past year, you’re certainly familiar with his speech at the XPN Festival. If you’re not, it’s essentially a Nietzschean tirade in which he comments on the absurdity of the current entertainment industry. This, doubtless, was a prelude to much of the material on Pure Comedy, especially ‘Total Entertainment Forever.’ In a way, he has offered us a concrete documentation of his then-developing philosophy, now made concrete through his record. He is an artist who revels in his artistry and simultaneously rejects his role as an entertainer. This calls to mind an interesting aside: The only time I’ve ever seen Father John Misty live, he expressed a bit of discomfort at the crowd’s Dionysian enjoyment of some of his simpler tunes. I get the sense that he is decidedly Apollonian, in that he takes his art seriously and is constantly working to perfect it.
With this lens, we see FJM truly at his most vulnerable. In addition to entertainment, he pontificates on religion, politics, and humanity as a whole. A recurring theme here – one that, ironically, he pokes fun at himself for – is the end of the world as we know it. ‘Things it Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution’ imagines a world in which humanity is driven by necessity to return to barbarism; opposite this ‘When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay’ explores the Judeo-Christian idea of “judgement day,” in which God comes to the conclusion that we have created hell on earth already. Interestingly, he uses the idea of hell on earth to illustrate a polarized political contrast in ‘Two Wildly Different Perspectives.’
Pure Comedy, however, is no manifesto. Rather, it is a fearful diagnosis of the chronic human condition. It is communicated through vivid fiction and personal anecdotes; even a 13 minute “10-verse chorus-less diatribe,” ‘Leaving LA,’ in which no one is free from scrutiny – least of all himself. He establishes himself as “another white guy in 2017 who takes himself too goddamn seriously,” concealing his lack of musical talent in the spotlight. This self-deprecation is less in the vein of you-can’t-shit-on-me-because-I-already-did, and more of a convoluted attempt at a balanced critique. One gets the feeling that ‘Ballad of the Dying Man’ is his way of externalizing his less desirable tendencies.
‘Smoochie’ offers a solitary, dreamy reprieve; the soft delay during the chorus sets it apart both in production and theme. On the whole, the record sounds like Honeybear with some interesting eccentricities – ‘A Bigger Paper Bag’ features an unsettling “melting” as the chords slowly bend flat. Although the focus is on the lyrics, this isn’t to suggest that there aren’t interesting and varied arrangements and production. His characteristically complex chord progressions keep the listener’s attention, especially when tempered by the occasional single-instrument ballad.
At this point, I could go into detail about the philosophy underlying the record as a whole, but instead I’ll direct you to his essay on the matter. If critics were inclined to believe that Honeybear was cynical, this will put them on Zoloft. Regardless, Pure Comedy is a remarkably well-developed, thought-provoking record for all of us living on this godless rock that refuses to die.
Pure Comedy is out April 7th via Sub Pop. Pre-Order here.