FJM blurs fragile line between comedy and full-on doom

Father John Misty is not an artist you can easily miss. While some may roll their eyes at his satire, his newest album serves as a way to ponder about life and the state of the world. / Courtesy of Flickr

Be warned—you are in for one wild ride if you choose to listen to Father John Misty’s (FJM) recently released third album “Pure Comedy.” The album is a tragicomedy mocking everything from the culture of millennials to religion to capitalism, and to human nature itself. The record is intense, apocalyptic and imaginative in parts, but also bears stunning truth. Unlike a lot of music, “Pure Comedy” isn’t something you can listen to on a Sunday afternoon when you are doing homework. It is a piece of art that will make you stop and think. There are many moments of FJM’s quintessential snark, but on the whole, the album’s vibe leans more towards a lamentation of humankind.

This may sound overwhelming for those of you who are unfamiliar with Josh Tillman (creatively known as Father John Misty), but as a longtime fan I can attest that he is truly a unique, laudable individual. Originally a part of a plethora of bands, but most notable for his time with Fleet Foxes, FJM is an indie folk artist from Maryland. It is hard to note every quality of the bearded free spirit—He is undeniably wild and provocative, having an undying love for his wife, and you’ll probably only see him in his natural state, wearing some androgynous outfit while massaging his temples as he ponders the idiocy of man. Some find him and his music pretentious or annoying, and honestly I can understand that, but even so, I think there is a lot of brilliance in his lyrics and a critical edge to his artistry.

One thing important to note about FJM is that his albums aren’t solely about the sound—I think his talent primarily shines in his lyrics. He is all about bringing sarcasm and humor into his music. “Pure Comedy,” however, takes a little more of a dramatic turn, including more cold-hard criticism than single-lined moments of hilarity. The album starts with the title track, which is arguably the best song in the record. As the song starts slowly, FJM sarcastically comments on the human condition, singing, “Now the miracle of birth leaves a few issues to address. / Like, say, that half of us are periodically iron deficient.” The song continues to build in both melodic complexity and lyrical intensity as a sharp saxophone makes a climactic debut. Additionally, the singer lays out some unanswerable criticisms about humanity, such as, “Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them? / What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?” FJM then goes on to bash religion by saying, “And how’s this for irony, their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs.” He ends the song on a note equally dreary as it is rather heartwarming, “Just random matter suspended in the dark. / I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.”

Other highlights of the album include “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” where FJM imagines life on a post-apocalyptic earth, and “Leaving LA,” a 13-minute diatribe where Tillman scrutinizes superficial L.A. culture, fame and his own reputation as a musician. The song sarcastically includes a line about his album: “I used to like this guy. / This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die.” After “Leaving LA,” a song ridiculously entitled “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” comes up next in the queue. You can probably imagine what this one is about. It includes Father John Misty feistily moaning to God: “Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored.” Just when you think you have heard the lowest of lows, FJM throws in “The Memo,” a sleepy tune with a melody that starts off slightly more hopeful than the other songs. Not too fast. However, this song is a formidable attack on modern art with FJM returning to the lyrics throughout the song: “If it’s fraud or art / They’ll pay you to believe.”

To top it off, FJM ends the album with “In Twenty Years or So” that features slow guitar strums coupled with some meandering piano. FJM sings, “in twenty years more or less this human experiment will reach its violent end.” But then in a turn of events that is wholly unexplained, he says, “And it’s a miracle to be alive,” and “there’s nothing to fear.” The album ends with some some sweet, tranquil melodies that grow louder and then fade out again, like a wave rolling in and then receding. The ending was reminiscent of a long sigh—the whirlwind is finally over.

It’s okay to roll your eyes! After listening to this album, you may feel defeated as a human being. I definitely felt drained and I was concerned that FJM had reached an unprecedented sadness. I also felt that he solidified himself as that self-important miscreant that critics like to deem him as. But alas, I still felt admiration towards him and especially agreed with some of his anger towards politics.

My main criticism of the album has to do with how sad the record is. Compared to his 2015 album “I Love You, Honeybear,” an endearing comedy about love and marriage he wrote to his wife, “Pure Comedy,” with its attempt to question humankind’s foolishness, is utterly upsetting. However, understanding Father John Misty’s persona, the album is not to be taken at face value—it’s supposed to be satirical. I would stipulate that the album blurs the fragile line—if there even is one—between comedy and straight-up doom. Father John Misty trades his perfect mixture of sentimental and sassy remarks in “I Love You, Honeybear” for an unappeasable cynicism in “Pure Comedy,” which is sometimes too dreary to find laughable.

I would recommend this album if you are feeling particularly angry about the state of our world and are in a mood to ponder man’s folly.

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