A thought-provoking but indulgent album that plays it far too safe.
It’s taken me a bit of time to approach this record, partly because I’ve been quite surprised by the mixed response to it. Critics and endless thinkpieces seem to love it, hailing it as more lyrically and conceptually ambitious than anything else we’ve seen from Father John Misty, but the general public seem pretty lukewarm towards it.
That’s probably because your perception of this record will have a lot to do with how you perceive Misty himself: is he the sarcastic modern-day prophet of the post-Trump era, or is he a pretentious asshole hipster complaining about the system while waving a half-smoked cigarette around?
Truth is, he’s kind of both. To a certain degree, Misty defends himself from these criticisms with self-flagellation. On the 13 minute ‘Leaving LA’ he describes himself as ‘conceal[ing his] lack of skill here in the spotlight’, and then imagines his audience abandoning him after hearing the very song he’s singing:
‘I’m beginning to begin to see the end / Of how it all goes down between me and them / Some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe / Plays as they all jump ship, “I used to like this guy”‘
Misty is more self-aware than ever on Pure Comedy, and it lends the album a strangely meta quality, as if just by listening to it we’re inescably sucked into its world of bullshit ideology, fashionable music and projected image.
But just because an album is aware of its own shortcomings doesn’t make it exempt from them. While lyrically as witty, dense and contradictory as ever, the music contained within Pure Comedy is quite a bit less exciting than Misty’s previous records.
The majority of the songs here are meandering piano ballads with instrumental bells and whistles, often pushing into the 6, 9, or 13 minute mark. Their collective effect is wearying over 74 minutes of music. Yes, Misty might be making some funny and interesting points, but somewhere around ‘Leaving LA’ this album begins to feel like its just beating me over the head with self-aware, post-ironic commentary, and I start reaching for something else.
If you stick through and make it all the way to the end, you’ll find the very clever and concise ‘Two Wildly Different Perspectives’ and ‘The Memo’, plus the rather lovely closing track. But it’s a long slog through the album’s middle section, which is full of forgettable songs (musically, at least) like ‘Birdie’, ‘A Bigger Paper Bag’, ‘Smoochie’ etc.
This album could certainly grow on me as the year goes on. It’s one with a lot of lyrical depth that won’t be uncovered after just a few listens. But honestly, none of that matters if the music doesn’t make me want to revisit the album. Only time will tell, but for now I think Pure Comedy is a thought-provoking and very witty record that is nevertheless pretty patchy and a bit too safe.