Rating : 9.5/10
Father John Misty has been making waves this year leading up to the release of his third studio album as the cynical songbird that manifested from the mind of Josh Tillman. His Saturday Night Live performance had the internet buzzing (for the wrong and right reasons depending on your point of view) after performing two new tracks off his latest release Pure Comedy. There’s an extensive tour planned with multiple festival stops ahead in the year, and now the release of yet another mystifyingly beautiful album. The spotlight certainly hasn’t done much harm to this point; in fact it has cast him into a mainstream conversation that he himself seems quite conflicted about. Some folks may never “get” him, I’m not even sure if Tillman gets him. One thing is for certain; the raving mind of this man creates some intellectual and emotional music, sprinkled with sarcasm, irony and harsh realities. Once again, Father John has created an album that tells a story. One that’s bound by an overall theme. This time though, he bears a little more of his true feelings.
It starts out with the title track Pure Comedy. A song ripe with cynical views that addresses the mundane reality of human existence. From the birth of a child and parenthood, to his viewpoints on religion and those that follow along; their “unbelievable outfits” and how upset they get “when you question their sacred texts, written by a woman hating epileptic”. Now that’s what he calls pure comedy!
It becomes clear very early on in the album that this release is a lot more politically charged than his previous two releases. Albums that were ripe with irony and humour amongst some light hearted music. Despite this one being titled “Pure Comedy”, it’s lacking any form of humour. The music itself can be very dark and haunting at times and is coupled perfectly with the cynicism present in the lyrics. The more you think about what Father John Misty is trying to accomplish, the more paranoid you’ll get that you’re taking the bait in a twisted plot to fall perfectly into a trap of hypocrisy and irony.
The album continues with Total Entertainment Forever, which opens with the lyric “Bedding Taylor Swift, every night inside the Oculus Rift”. It’s full of memorable lines that will have you stopping to question what exactly Misty is referring to: “…In the new age we’ll all be entertained, rich or poor, the channels are all the same. You’re a star now baby so dry your tears…”, “…Not bad for a race of demented monkeys. From a cave to a city to a permanent party…”. The music to accompany is the most upbeat on the album. That’s not to say that it’s a positive song by any means. It’s a mockery of what society has become, and the direction it’s heading. The music serves as the biggest dose of sarcasm. Its fun light hearted sound contradicts the dark lyrics that Tillman has strung together.
As the record continues it becomes apparent that this album was never going to have any catchy singles. It wasn’t made to get people dancing, or to lock in some royalty cheques for Tillman for the next ten years. It is thought-provoking and emotional. Art that will make listeners feel. Maybe that emotion will be anger, disgust or fear. Maybe it will be hope, inspiration or comfort. Either way, it’s going to be divisive. Fans of Misty may think it’s too depressing. Not funny enough, too real, too depressing. It may garner new fans that see this as more than music. It may put off listeners that aren’t very familiar with Father John Misty. Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know before the Revolution continues this intent. Addressing the sad realities of modern society. The Ballad of the Dying Man is a reflection of what Misty has become in the music scene, the way he has been viewed and perceived by music fans through his first few years in the mainstream music scene. The title offers some clues as to what Tillman is looking to accomplish with this release. Birdie is a slow, acoustic song, sprinkled with strange noises and ambience. The lyrics continue his reflection on modern society and its direction. How we will soon “live in a global culture devoid of gender or race…”
It’s followed up by Leaving LA which is a heavy hitter and the true defining song of this album. The song where Misty is infiltrated by Tillman. Misty shares a ton of deeply personal feelings and anecdotes. The one that garnered most of my attention was “A little less human with each release, closing the gap between the mask and me”. A mask he refers to earlier in the song as one of the tools a songwriter needs “Arrows of love, a mask of tragedy”. He’s referring to the fact that praise and recognition come at a cost. Feeling less human with each release. Tillman is garnering more and more attention as his alter-ego Father John Misty, and this is causing the loss of his true self. Ironically the lyrics in this song are clearly the thoughts of Josh Tillman. They have infiltrated the mind of Father John, as Father John has infiltrated the mind of Tillman..“Closing the gap between the mask and me”. I call this defining because it truly does feel like a shift in the career of Misty, not just a shift in the album or theme. Is the dying man Misty? Or Tillman? Are the two identities going to melt into one? It seems to me that at this point there are no more rules. I have to say this song needs to be heard, I can’t touch on every theme or personal anecdote that is shared without transforming this into a review of one song instead of an album.
A Bigger Paper Bag continues the personal reflection on Misty’s career to this point. Lyrics offer insight into the thoughts being conveyed; “I was pissing on the flame, like a child with cash or a king on cocaine. I’ve got the world by the balls, am I supposed to behave?”. It references his rapport with his audience, and the effects of his success had on his actions and behaviour. When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay discusses a hypothetical situation where God returns to Earth and how we would explain the state of the world. The song however places the blame on God. “…but first let’s take you on a quick tour of your creations handy work”. It points out the flaws of humanity “It’s just human, human nature. We’ve got these appetites to serve, you must not know the first thing about human beings. We’re the earth’s most soulful predator. Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored”. He wraps up the song with the lyrics “Oh, My Lord. We just want light in the dark, some warmth in the cold, and to make something out of nothing…sounds like someone else I know”. A sarcastic jab at the theory that God created us in his image, and therefore all of our wants and desires are the direct result of that intention.
Smoochie doesn’t offer a ton of insight into the overall theme of the album, it seems like an ode to his wife for sticking by his side during the tough times. When he is battling with his cynical views or dark thoughts, she is always there to help guide him to the light at the other end. Two Wildly Different Perspectives deals with the theme of differing viewpoints. With lines like “One side says y’all go to hell. The other says if I believed in God I’d send you there.” And “One side says kill ‘em all. The other says line those killers up against the wall.” It more or less goes over the fact that differing viewpoints will always create space between us. That there is always a winner and loser when understanding and compassion is dismissed.
The Memo stays true to its title. It seems like a collection of Misty’s thoughts penned down in regards to his outlook on modern society. “Oh caffeine in the morning, alcohol at night. Cameras to record you, and mirrors to recognize. And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time. Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online.” Near the end of the song, there are bland, generic statements layered in the background with a robotic voice “This is the song of my summer”. “This guy just gets me” among them.
So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain opens with a very grim line “That was the last New Year, I’ll ever see”. What this means could be a multitude of things. Perhaps a reference to the death of his identity, maybe more so in regards to his social life. He later sings the line in a similar style to the opening line “That was the very last barn, I’m burning”. He also alludes to Magic Mountain as a place where none of the harsh realities of humanity exist. “There’s no one old on Magic Mountain”. It again deals with the theme of withdrawal; something that has become very prominent by this point. Throughout the record, it comes across that Misty isn’t just physically leaving LA, but also the socially charged lifestyle that comes with living in such a place.
In Twenty Years or So opens with another grim line. “What’s there to lose for a ghost, in a cheap rental suit, clinging to a rock that is hurdling through space? What’s to regret for a speck, on a speck, on a speck. Made more ridiculous the more serious he gets?” Misty here is feeling defeated, wondering what’s the point. Although it starts quite grim, it shifts towards a positive outlook around the halfway mark. “Oh I read somewhere, that in twenty years more or less, this human experiment will reach its violent end. But I look at you, as our second drinks arrive. The piano player’s playing ‘This Must Be the Place’ and it’s a miracle to be alive, one more time”. It’s one of a few glimpses of happiness on a very dark album.
After spending quite some time with this release, it became a very daunting task to put it all into words. I can’t begin to share all the important and meaningful thoughts that contribute to the overall theme and feel of this album. There are so many lyrics that guide this album through its very dark caverns. Some tunnels darker than others, some tunnels with a glimmer of light in the distance. Any fan of Father John Misty needs to hear this album, anyone unfamiliar with him may want to look elsewhere for an introduction. This album does not go down smooth. Despite its mellow and smooth musical styling’s, it’s extremely abrasive lyrically and will likely be received with a variety of reactions. None the less, to me this work is brilliant. It’s raw, abrasive and truthful. It leaves an emotional mark on you from the first time you listen. It provokes thoughts and feelings. To me this album is the best of Father John Misty’s career.