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The Serious Genius of Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy

Josh Tillman returns with his latest heady release

At first glance, Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy might sound like the recorded version of a clergyman moonlighting as a stand-up comic, but in actuality it’s the latest studio album from the former Fleet Foxes drummer. Try to imagine Elton John as an American folk artist with lyrics penned by Randy Newman or Conor Oberst, and you’ll have an entry point into the sardonic, acid-tongued, yet filmic world of singer-songwriter Father John Misty (née Josh Tillman). 

“The comedy of man starts like this/Our brains are much too big for our mothers’ hips,” begins the opening of Tillman’s third full-length set for Sub Pop Records, released under his mysterious moniker, Father John Misty. That first line of the album’s title track effectually sets the tone of what listeners can expect to hear from the inner workings of FJM’s mind. Likewise, when he questions “Pissing on the flame/Like a child with cash, or a kid on cocaine/I’ve got the world by the balls/Am I supposed to behave?” on “A Bigger Paper Bag.” 

Recorded at Hollywood’s legendary United Studios (Frank Sinatra, Eric Clapton, and Josh Groban have recorded there), Pure Comedy’s sonic atmosphere was created by musician Jonathan Wilson, alongside FJM and his longtime sound engineer Trevor Spencer. The team efficaciously combine elegant orchestral string arrangements (courtesy of applauded composers Gavin Bryars and Nico Muhly) with an almost spontaneous vocal quality, which sounds as if Misty is deep inside your head. The clean, mostly analog production is a noticeable leap forward from the murkiness of FJM’s previous efforts, which he self-describes as “Pro Tools Frankensteins.” 

The lively, but slightly abstruse “Total Entertainment Forever” begins with a bit of lighthearted mocking; (“Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift”) yet, it’s easily the closest thing you’ll find here resembling an archetypal pop song. FJM’s tongue-in-cheek wit might be interpreted as pompous or self-important, but in actuality he’s merely mirroring the world as filtered through his own unique life experiences. With that said, you can’t help wondering if his timely lyrics are ironic or deliberately politically charged, or if we are to ultimately infer he ardently detests the subject matter about which he is singing. 

Despite occasionally coming across as the journalistic diatribes of someone suffering from clinical depression (the stirring threnody “Ballad of the Dying Man”), coupled with hints of kleptocracy (“Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” and “The Memo”), Pure Comedy’s individual tracks seamlessly weave together both lyrically and sonically, ultimately resulting in an accurately cohesive representation of the artist. Though at times, it sounds as if you’re listening to an episodic disgorging of the human condition, which someone secretly recorded during one of Misty’s cathartic therapy sessions about the damnation of mankind.

The album is strategically sequenced around its epochal 13-minute centerpiece “Leaving L.A.” The poignant, but excessively long track is equal parts reflection and self-criticism, endemic with fractured poetic phrases almost guaranteed to become immortalized as lasting declarations within Father John Misty’s canon. “These L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands/Sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant,” laments Misty on his ode to “the manufactured gasp of the final days.”

While Pure Comedy periodically sounds like the type of luciferous debut album Aimee Mann or Kate Bush might’ve composed had they been born male, only time and perspective will ultimately determine if this turns out to be Father John Misty’s career-defining album, although he’s undeniably grabbed our attention. 

Watch Misty's short film of his recording process

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