Referring to Pure Comedy as a follow-up to 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear might give the wrong impression. Fans hoping for another “Chateau Lobby” or “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” won’t find it here. Across the the album's 75 minute run time there's hardly a chorus or hook to be found. That being said, Pure Comedy is still very much a Father John Misty album, but whereas the last outing gave us Father John Misty the lover, here we have Father John Misty the philosopher…or perhaps the comedian?
From the outset the album grapples with large scale concepts, opening with the title track wherein J. Tillman muses on the idiosyncrasies and seemingly unending struggles that face the human race. To say that his outlook on the “comedy of man” is a cynical one would be putting it mildly, but Tillman’s ever-present sarcastic wit is on full display. Listeners following along with the lyrics (perhaps while admiring the Heironymus Bosch-esque cover art) will find it hard not to crack a smile, though what it is thats so funny will likely vary greatly depending on the listeners opinion of the Father John Misty persona.
It is, however, how Tillman approaches that controversial persona, and the expectations it has created during his rise to fame, that elevates “Pure Comedy” above either of his previous releases. Rather than a self-aware indulgence in the smug wit and arrogant charm that has defined his brand since his 2012 debut, here Tillman often turns it on its head, calling himself out for his high-mindedness and lobbing criticisms at his own behavior. The result is an album that manages to feel more personal than either Fear Fun or Honeybear despite being much larger in the scope of its ideas. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the nearly thirteen minute track “Leaving LA”, wherein Josh Tillman’s exhaustion with the persona he’s created is on full display, and the desire to simply speak as himself is expressed, even if his fans hear a “ten-verse chorus-less diatribe” that “really kind of makes [them] want to die”.
While Pure Comedy is very much an album of ideas, Tillman’s chops as a musician are on full display. His vocals are as effortless as always, and while the the focus is more the words than the melodies, it’s hard not to stand up and take notice when Tillman flexes his range. The songwriting is anchored around simple acoustic guitar progressions, but often effortlessly divulges into jazzy horn segments, lulling strings, bombastic orchestras, and warm synths while still being the most folk oriented album in the Father John Misty oeuvre. The compositions are often subtly complex, creating lush but delicate atmospheres and complimenting an album that has a lot of serious things to say while constantly reminding the listener to not take it too seriously.
Pure Comedy demands a lot of its listener. It poses many complex questions and provides no easy answers, manages to be beautiful in its bleakness and thought provoking in its crassness. Its secrets and subtleties reveal themselves slowly over multiple listens, and it is experienced best with no distractions and a lyric insert in hand. Moreover, it is an album tied deeply to the world as it is now, one in which we are constantly bombarded with the sheer volume of mankind’s misery while we all struggle with our own, small and seemingly insignificant demons. In the end Pure Comedy proves to be something very elusive: an album that is above all things honest, or at least honestly attempting to be.