In Three Years Or So: Celebrating Pure Comedy

On its anniversary, Father John Misty’s seminal 2017 record proves just as sparkling, inventive and relevant as it did three years ago

This month, Father John Misty’s prominent Pure Comedy turns three, originally released in April of 2017. The album has been addressed, at the time and since, from several perspectives. From some corners it was met with glittering reviews, YouTube critic The Needle Drop calling it “one of 2017’s most necessary albums”, and from others not so much, Spencer Kornhaber via The Atlantic describing it as a “tedious brochure for nihilism” and Annie Aleski via the AV Club, who gave the album a B+, admitting that the singer-songwriter is “both a journalist’s dream and worst nightmare”. Indeed, Josh Tillman is no stranger to criticising the press nor toying with dialogues; the artist’s deletion of Twitter a few months after the album came out probably speaks for itself.

And so, while his record was a critical darling, Tillman’s stony charisma is not to everyone’s taste. Pure Comedy offers quite the unique, high-concept brand of folk rock; it is, admittedly, the kind of behemoth project born to wow critics and polarise audiences. Tillman seemed aware of this, too. God’s Favourite Customer was released just nearly one year later, a quick turnout for modern standards; the album featured a much more streamlined philosophy, with ten tracks, personal lyrics and shorter songs. It feels like a stylistic course correction, placing Pure Comedy in an interesting, fleeting position. The album’s luster appears very captured and standalone Misty’s discography, heralded on release and quickly left in the past. The lack of new studio material since Customer and general media abstinence ought to talk on this further.

Thankfully, Tillman’s bold, 75-minute mammoth holds up. In some ways, it is even improved by the passing of time thanks to the ability to reflect on this particular snapshot of the artist’s career. The record’s instrumentation is still a joy; it jumps between Elton John-esque pop songwriting on ‘Total Entertainment Forever’, to synthethised soundscapes on ‘Birdie’, to piano balladry on ‘When The God of Love Returns’. The project as a whole is wrapped in folk-inflected grandiose, Tillman chorusing, lamenting and eventually conceding across the album’s running time. 

Indeed, the lyrical development as the record progresses is a great element to how its themes are addressed. The ‘pure comedy’ concept in discussing — at length — the human condition is performed in a way that feels unique and very tied-up with Tillman’s style. It is far from subtle, though, with the opening title track literally beginning “the comedy of man starts like this…” and smacking of sardonicism. Pure Comedy does not ask you explicitly to invest introspection or time into its musings, but this is what makes it so great. Instead, it sits you down, firmly, and tells you — dryly and verbosely — about what it thinks, and lists its observations against musical backdrops that strengthen the emotional impact of the words. And, through this, we do begin to wonder, and think, and contemplate the ideas that Tillman so boldly and shamelessly presses onto us. The listening experience of Pure Comedy is special, because our feelings grow alongside the record’s; by the time we reach the the songwriter’s opus ‘Leaving LA’, we are ready for a deep-dive into why, rather than what, and as we approach the closer ‘In Twenty Years Or So’, we do indeed draw the same conclusion that Misty does, after over an hour of material that explores the subject matter in remorseless detail and breadth. We realise our lack of power over the so-called human condition outside of simple articulation and artistic evaluation — “But I look at you … And it’s a miracle to be alive / One more time”. Whether this is taken as sarcasm or candor is irrelevant, for either way, we believe we must engage in our helplessness together; it is the only vague hope we have. Pure Comedy, as well as thematically, is emotionally exhaustive; its conclusion feels very earned despite a potentially tiring runtime, and there’s a real sense of authenticity in the experience it offers. It would be easy to dismiss the record as pretentious waffle, but giving it proper attention would reveal that Josh really aims to be understood, and that he is just clueless and vulnerable as the rest of us. Tillman threads his narrative carefully.

Despite the length, subject matter and reputation of the record, it is also incredibly memorable and easy to come back to. It is not a ‘broccoli’ album — a critically heralded project that is great for artistic expression but might also be a little bit boring — but rather pulls its focus to writing great songs alongside addressing various topics. Whether it’s the masterful, stripped-back ‘God of Love’, or the deftly observed ‘Ballad of the Dying Man’, or the crooning and darkly satisfying ‘The Memo’, Tillman once again shows his colours as a gifted songwriter and storyteller. Somehow, it is a delight both as an intact listening experience as well as a collection of tracks to dip into. There are some lulls; the aching ‘So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain’ could be a tad indulgent for some listeners, and the shimmery instrumental of ‘Two Wildly Different Perspectives’ can get old pretty quickly (the project’s second half is probably weaker than the first). But even these so-called low-points wield merit in the tracklist, and contribute confidently to the album’s collage of ideas. Even ‘Smoochie’, a decidedly more personal track, fits fine when considered as either self-deprecating or introspective in the vein of the themes plastered all over the songs that precede it.

As Pure Comedy turns three, it is the perfect time to revisit the record. It is about so much; artistic expression, how we address ourselves, human habits, social media, journalism, mental health, vulnerability, the artist himself, etcetera — the themes are timeless, and, if not timeless, then a substantial encapsulation of this modern age. I continue to love Father John Misty’s work here; it remains relevant, beautiful, amusing and emotionally adept. Happy birthday.

Header image: Bella Union/Sub Pop
Article images: Sub Pop/Father John Misty, David Wolff-Patrick/Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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