Graded on a Curve:
Father John Misty,
Pure Comedy

I’m a big fan of Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty). I love the way he sounds like the second coming of Elton John and I love his dour worldview which makes him rock’s village crank holding forth in the town square to a snoozing dog. Sure he’s a nattering nabob of negativity, but then again so am I.

So I’m a mite aggrieved by the insults that are being slung his way. John Mayer went to Twitter to say poor Father John “sounds like shit Elton John but if he was just sitting in a corner staring at his hands on LSD.” And The Atlantic Monthly said of Misty’s 2017 LP Pure Comedy that it “often plays like a tedious brochure for nihilism, rescued only by a few flirtations with grace.”

To which I would reply that Father John Misty–who has done time in a slew of bands including Fleet Foxes–sounds like pretty good Elton John to me. And I would reply furthermore that there are far worse things than brochures for nihilism, which is nothing more than an attempt to strip away the comforting illusions that allow us to ignore the painful realities of our present predicament.

I’ll be the first to admit that Pure Comedy is occasionally tedious; at 13 minutes “Leaving LA” tests even my patience, and three of its other songs exceed the 6-minute mark. But I kind of admire its epic reach; if the adamantine pessimist Louis-Ferdinand “I would live for a thousand years if I were certain of seeing the world croak” Celine had decided to forgo the novel in favor of rock, he’d have put out a long-stemmed bummer much like this one.

Pure Comedy is a sprawling bummer, a lacerating indictment of a failed human race, and a comedic tour de force by a guy who doesn’t particularly care if you like him or not. There’s a nobility in his unfashionable naysaying; people are so fond of saying that cosmic cynicism is the easy way out, but if that’s true why aren’t there more true cynics in this world where everyone is seeking the easy way out? Because to lose your illusions means abandoning the notion that life has meaning, and if life has no meaning why go on at all?

Misty’s concept of “pure comedy” is the bitter joke; his is a gimlet-eyed glance at human hypocrisy and our deludedly elevated conception of ourselves. We’re “like something that a madman might conceive”; we have “total entertainment forever” now, which ain’t bad “for a race of demented monkeys” whose evolutionary arc has taken us “from a cave to a city to a permanent party.” As for the “revolution” (see “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”) its aftermath won’t be pretty, but at least “the obscene injunction to enjoy life” will disappear–and haven’t you ever wanted to scream at being told to smile as life drives in the spikes?

This is unpropitious stuff, and it doesn’t surprise me that Misty is ruffling feathers. Pure Comedy is a 72-minute browbeating, a vitriolic (but often darkly hilarious) diatribe delivered by a hipster Bartleby the Scrivener whose answer to life would appear to be “I’d prefer not to.” Even your so-called realists will say Misty goes too far with his bleak talk about how awful life is “on this bright blue marble orbited by trash.”

My suspicion is that, like me, Father John Misty considers hope the lubricant that keeps the human meat grinder running, and that furthermore hope is the only thing keeping us insane. He has diagnosed our species and declared us schizophrenic. We cling to our illusions because to abandon them would mean facing the horrible truth–that we’re not exalted beings, but merely a jest of evolution damned to suffer in a way that no other species does by the dubious gift of self-consciousness.

Misty’s dire pessimism may make him unique amongst rock artists, but he has ample company when it comes to modern thinkers and writers; E.M. Cioran, Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Ligotti and the aforementioned Celine all come to mind. In the very lugubrious “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” a “pale horse” says, “Jesus, you didn’t leave a whole lot for me/If this isn’t hell already then tell me what hell is.” Grim stuff, as are the lines, “We crawled out of the darkness/And endured your impatience/We’re more than willing to adjust/And now you’ve got the gall to judge us.”

Musically, Pure Comedy tends toward the lugubrious as well; it’s quite lovely at times, but aside from “Total Entertainment Forever” there isn’t an upbeat track on the thing. Misty mostly tends toward the kind of piano rock that made Elton John a household name–with the Elliott Smith-tinged “A Bigger Paper Bag” being a notable exception–and he leans toward Sir Elton’s depressed Blue Moves period while he’s at it. And he sure knows how to hit you with the strings.

Father John Misty most certainly isn’t out to win friends and influence people; your average listener is likely to write him off as a misanthropic meanie blind to the good things in life. Me, I see Pure Comedy as the devil having his say; it stands as a NO to life every bit as much as Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s unremittingly grim Journey to the End of Night. Every damned optimist on this planet gets his unreconstituted say; why shouldn’t we hear from the loyal opposition?

From H. Melville’s Moby Dick: “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.” Father John Misty gets the joke and laughs, but his laugh is a bitter one.

And it cannot be said that Father John Misty’s outlook on life is completely bleak. He ends the title track with the almost hopeful words, “I hate to say, but each other is all we got.” Just another illusion? Maybe. But it’s one this cynic intends to hold on to.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text