Music Reviews
Pure Comedy

Father John Misty Pure Comedy

(Bella Union / Sub Pop) Rating - 4/10

The video for one of the most anticipated debut singles in music history begins with the words: “We’re Arctic Monkeys. This is I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. Don’t believe the hype.”

Back in 2005, anyone, including the band themselves, would certainly have been justified in getting carried away. Having cultivated a ferociously devoted fanbase during the boom years of MySpace, Arctic Monkeys were receiving blanket coverage and adulation, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise had they let that go to their heads and thought they’d got it made. In fact, history is littered with bands who, following a successful period and some positive coverage, did believe the hype, and it’s a downwards slope from that point on.

Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, has never been subject to the kind of hype and pressure that Arctic Monkeys faced in the middle of the last decade. He’s never reached the level of achievement that they repeatedly have and he’s never sold anywhere the number of records. But thanks to his last LP, the magnificent I Love You, Honeybear, he does now have to deal with fame. Or, at least, the kind of fame where you’re a big draw for indie music websites.

Father John Misty seems to be dealing with this new-found fame by doing his best to turn it into infamy as quickly as possible. The video for his latest single features Kurt Cobain being crucified alongside Garfield’s Jon Arbuckle (Cobain is played by Macaulay Culkin, because of course he is), he’s admitted “outrage is the new entertainment” and last year, he posted on Instagram that he’d stolen a rose quartz crystal from a juice bar in LA. Even news and media websites – no strangers to clickbait themselves – seem to be getting a little weary at his antics: “Father John Misty went full troll mode…” (Consequence of Sound) is one, “Father John Misty now going door to door trying to shock people” (The Ringer) is another. That’s not to mention the have-your-cake-and-eat-it, post-modern, hypocritical condemnation meta-headline of “Here is the scandalous Father John Misty interview you’ve been waiting for” (Pitchfork).

This narcissism and associated media circus could ruin an album.

It has ruined an album. This album.

In believing the hype, Father John Misty is now of the opinion he has something Very Important to share with us all. While he aims to come across as a seer and a beacon of truth, in truth he’s more like a smug 15-year-old misanthrope who acts as if they’re the first person to have an epiphany about organised religion being a bad thing. He’s everybody who’s ever started a sentence, “Actually, I think you’ll find…”, he’s the man who reads On The Road and thinks he’s a learned citizen of the world, he’s the “me, an intellectual” meme come to life without the irony.

The opening line of Total Entertainment Forever is, “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Occulus Rift”. Plenty has been written about it, but the fact remains it’s surely one of the worst lyrics ever committed to record. It’s a line that’s included purely for shock factor and to get people talking. It would be a tired and puerile stunt even if Kanye hadn’t already done it.

It’s the worst offender in a long list of lines that are delivered with a wink and a knowing grin: “How’s this for irony? / Their idea of being free / Is a prison of beliefs” (Pure Comedy), “I never learned to play the lead guitar / I always preferred the speaking parts” (Leaving LA), “It’ll be so glorious / When they finally find out what’s bugging us” (Birdie) – the examples really start to stack up. Compared to the relative refreshment of I Love You, Honeybear, Pure Comedy is often a trudge. Its misanthropy is wearing and as it progresses, it snowballs to the point of Father John Misty unravelling entirely. There’s a song that’s thirteen minutes of acoustic guitar and no choruses. There’s no need for it at all.

And yet, in parts, Pure Comedy is an absolutely gorgeous album. Despite Father John Misty’s best attempts to derail it through sheer force of personality, there are real moments of beauty. His arrangements with Jonathan Wilson bring out the quality of the (music) writing, particularly on the aforementioned Total Entertainment Forever where, tiresome celebrity-baiting aside, the horns prove an ideal foil for Father John Misty’s textured croon.

Despite the fact he’s effectively done a Be Here Now, Father John Misty hasn’t become a bad songwriter or a bad singer overnight. His voice continues to ameliorate everything with which it’s associated, and he retains a melodic gift that easily surpasses the majority of his peers.

This all serves to make Pure Comedy one of the most frustrating releases of recent times. Tracks meander insipidly, crushed by the weight of a solipsistic “message” and the real moments of quality only serve as a reminder of what might have been. Father John Misty isn’t the first artist to believe his own hype, and he won’t be the last, but hopefully Pure Comedy will prove to be a one-off mistake rather than the beginning of a man entering an irreversible pretentiousness spiral.