Album Review of "Pure Comedy" by Father John Misty
Josh Tillman's Exploration of the Human Condition
What did choking on a piece of watermelon candy in a JCPenny store teach Father John Misty about life? A lot, apparently. Join host Bobby Waller and dive deep into this lyrically rich album by singer/songwriter Josh Tillman to learn what it can teach us about the human condition.
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Pure Comedy by Father John Misty
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Album Review: Pure Comedy by Father John Misty
The Five Best Moments of This Album
This is a transcript of Ep. 4 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here
Welcome to What’s This Album About? I’m Bobby Waller, and this episode is about Father John Misty’s new album Pure Comedy.
♪ Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy…
Pure Comedy is the third album that singer/songwriter Josh Tillman has released under the stage moniker Father John Misty. It is a scathing commentary on the human condition—probably more tragic than comic, really—but its fatalism is at least partially offset by Tillman’s sharp observational wit and occasional glimmers of hope.
Tillman is a former drummer for indie folk rock band, Fleet Foxes.
♪ I was following the, I was following the… I was following the…
He had been releasing albums under his given name for nearly a decade before he started calling himself Father John Misty in 2012—a move he made because he felt his songwriting was contrived and so, to break away from his old habits, he created a new persona. Ironically, Josh Tillman took on the fake name Father John Misty to make himself write more authentically. It sounds unlikely, but it worked. And the latest result of that bizarre experiment in ego-effacement is the album we’re focusing on in this episode of What’s This Album About? So without ado, here are the Five Best Moments of Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy.
Moment #1: The Set-Up
One of my favorite things about this album is the way it opens. This is Track 1, the title track, and in it, Father John Misty gets straight to the business of announcing his mission statement. Here’s the first line:
♪ The Comedy of Man starts like this
our brains our way too big for our mother’s hips
Right from the get-go, Tillman tells us this album is going to elucidate the problems inherent in the human predicament. It’s an almost absurdly ambitious enterprise, but with such a frank and clever opening line, I found myself willing to give Tillman a shot. As you heard, he begins with the root cause of humanity’s woes—our adult heads would never fit through the birth canal, so we have to be born in a small, underdeveloped state, reliant on others to guide us through maturation. And this need for human offspring to be tended to constantly is compounded by another problem.
♪ Half of us are periodically iron deficient
We need protein. And at least for primal human beings, that meant men would go hunt for meat because as the female narrator of this line put it
♪ I’d do it myself but what, are you gonna get this thing its milk?
And so the first social institution we develop as a response to the crisis of birth is a gender-based division of labor…
♪ Ladies, I hope we don’t end up regretting this
But stay tuned, because, as the rest of the song—and, in fact , the rest of the album—reveals, this is just the first of our mistakes.
Moment #2: What We Do With Technology
While Track 1 foreshadows humanity’s myriad twisted responses to the human predicament, Track 2, “Total Entertainment Forever,” focuses on one of those responses in particular—namely our need for constant entertainment. And the most provocative line in this song is, again, the opener:
♪ Bedding Taylor Swift
every night inside the oculus rift
after mister and the misses
finish dinner and the dishes…
I love this opening line, not simply because it references using virtual reality goggles to have sex with Taylor Swift, but mainly because of the juxtaposition of pop superstar Taylor Swift with this mundane nameless couple seeking entertainment after they do the dishes. The phenomenon Tillman is referring to here is a particularly insidious feature of life in the digital age—the ability to place the rich and famous in virtual proximity to rest of us. The implications for placating the masses into passivity are formidable. I may have a lousy job and no social life, but at least I get tweets from Donald Trump in real time. “Total Entertainment Forever” is a biting critique of our plugged-in lifestyle, and its other great moment comes at the very end, when archeologists of the future uncover our civilization and find our corpses hooked up to entertainment hubs.
♪ When historians find us we’ll be in our homes
plugged into our hubs, skin and bones
a frozen smile on every face, as the stories replay
this must have been a wonderful place
I know. Sarcasm is the lowest form of humor. But still, it made me laugh. And so did…
Moment #3: The Dying Man’s Last Action
♪ Naturally, the dying man wonders to himself
has his commentary been more lucid than anybody else?
This is Track 4, “Ballad of a Dying Man.” It’s a vignette about a man who has lived his life to be right. Like “the mister and the misses” in “Total Entertainment Forever,” he lives a plugged-in lifestyle. In his case, he’s always online to express his opinions. And now that he’s about to die, he wonders how the world can possibly go on without him critiquing it. My other favorite moment from this song occurs in the last verse, as the dying man prepares to draw his final breath:
♪ Eventually, the dying man takes his final breath
but first checks his news feed to see what he’s about to miss
The thought that someone’s dying action would be to check their news feed is hilarious to me. But the song ends on a more serious note, as the dying man experiences a last-minute deathbed epiphany:
♪ From the rented heavens
to the shadows in the cave
we’ll all be wrong someday
Moment #4: Self-Effacement
Although I really love this album, I know it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. After all, it’s an hour and fourteen minutes of Father John Misty ranting about everything that’s wrong with the world. This could definitely be a turn off for some listeners. For me, however, Tillman’s saving grace is that, in addition to spotlighting the world’s flaws, he also spotlights his own. And that humility goes a long way toward keeping Pure Comedy listen-able and like-able.
Probably the most self-effacing song on Pure Comedy is Track 6, “Leaving LA.” On it, Tillman reveals that he knows some people will find his work wordy and self-indulgent and even presages how he will lose fans.
♪ I’m beginning to begin to see the end
of how it all goes down between me and them
some ten-verse chorus-less diatribe plays
as they all jump ship, ‘I used to like this guy’
this new ship really kinda makes me wanna die…
But the most memorable moment of self-effacement comes at the very end of the song when Tillman relays this haunting real-life memory of hearing a particular piece of music during a childhood near-death experience.
♪ My first memory of music’s from the time at JC Penney’s with my mom
the watermelon candy I was choking on
Barbara screaming, ‘Someone help my son’
And now here’s where the eerie poetry of life comes to play. Because while he’s nearly dying in this foolish way in this obscenely mundane place, learning a hard lesson about his own expendability—learning that any idea he’s ever had about his own self-importance is a lie--what’s playing on the in-store sound system at the time?
♪ That “tell me lies, sweet little white lies” song
Fleetwood Mac’s “Tell Me Lies”—“sweet little white lies.”
♪ That’s when I first saw the comedy won’t stop
for even little boys dying in department stores
And the final moment of Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy that we’re going to highlight in this episode of What’s This Album About? is…
Moment #5: The Glimmer of Hope
If you’re going to spend an hour and fourteen minutes telling us what’s wrong with the world, there are a few things you should probably do along the way if you want us to stick around for the ride. One is that you’ve got to have some humility, which we were just talking about in Moment #4. And the other is that you’ve got to show us a way out of the madness. For all its seeming fatalism, Pure Comedy does offer some redemption. And nowhere is that redemption more eloquently articulated than on the album’s final cut, “In Twenty Years Or So,” which we’re hearing right now. According to the song, the gateway to rising above the suffering is perspective.
♪ What’s to regret for a speck on a speck on a speck…
True, the future of humanity looks bleak. And our solutions to our problems—like religion, politics, technology, and entertainment—only compound the bleakness. But if we take a step back and recognize that we’re just a speck on a speck on a speck, there is an ironic glimmer of hope—because when we realize that our grandest solutions are futile, we free ourselves to enjoy life’s simpler moments. In the final vignette of the album, Tillman is at a bar, recalling a prophecy that humanity’s demise is only twenty years away, and then, he looks at his wife.
♪ 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
And so, in the refuge of this uncomplicated pleasure --looking at his wife while Talking Heads most beautiful song plays in the background—Josh Tillman ends this album full of observations with one final revelation.
♪ There’s nothing to fear, there’s nothing to fear, there’s nothing to fear…
That’s it for this episode of What’s This Album About? Take a moment to like, share, comment or subscribe, if you care to. What’s This Album About? is on all the usual social media platforms. And let me know if you have any ideas for topics of future episodes. The best way to get ahold of me is at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you that there truly is nothing to fear. So keep your ears open, because: