A Review of Father John Misty that Desperately Tries to Avoid Becoming a Think Piece on the Man Himself:
buzz factor: 6/10
Verdict: While it is hard to tell if FJM is trying too hard, or trying to look like he is in fact not trying at all lends the audience an album with a matured sound, stepping in a direction we can’t see clearly, at least not yet.
Best tracks: “Smoochie,” “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”
In the weeks leading up to the release of his new album, “Pure Comedy,” Father John Misty has become an unavoidable part of internet consumption. He’s a godsend for any publication looking for a way to gain some indie cred; his interviews are a guaranteed mishmash of hot takes, earnest insights, and, of course, RAUNCHY (FJM says he paints his balls) PULL (FJM’s defense of Nickelback) QUOTES (FJM being pleased about being disliked).
And who can blame them for picking him up while he’s hot? He’s an interesting artifact of the times, mixing the knowing theatricality of early Eminem’s “is it a persona/ is it really him” shtick with the ironic/earnest tension of the Internet age. He’s a folk-pop singer with a tabloid-headline personality.
He’s an enigma, or at least has the appearance of one. But I’m not here to talk about that. There’s enough think pieces out in the digital sphere already on what FJM “means”. I’m here to talk about his new album, “Pure Comedy,” and whether or not it’s worth your time.
The short answer: Yes. Sort of. If you’re willing to give him a lot of your time. To give you an idea of the kind of commitment I’m talking about, “Pure Comedy” clocks in at just over 75 minutes total. “I Love You, Honeybear,” on the other hand, ran a comparatively cool 45 minutes. But it’s not just that extra half hour that makes this album a more trying release than his last.
There’s been some talk about how this album is a maturation for FJM, favoring subtler instrumentation over the theatrics of “Honeybear”. Apparently, that means giving up the killer melodies that were all over that record, and inflating the songs to drastic lengths.
There are four songs that are over the six-minute mark, with centerpiece “Leaving LA” coming in at a glacial 13 minutes. Again, being lengthy is not inherently a bad thing, but the longer songs don’t really develop all that much; the arrangements tend to be pretty stagnant.
FJM has said in interviews that during the recording of the album he gave up alcohol, cigarettes and meat, and that asceticism is all over the songwriting here. Most songs start out positively skeletal, just a piano, guitar and his voice. Gone is the immediacy of songs like “Chateau Lobby #4” and “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”.
The songs here may be more mature in the sense that they require more patience, and a willingness to trust in his ability to build upon the promises he makes in the beginning of each. And sometimes, it works: the slide guitars on “Smoochie” are absolutely gorgeous, and the orchestral synth churn that closes out “So I’m growing Old on Magic Mountain” is exactly the kind of transcendent moment that comes when a song is given space to build on itself.
At its best, “Pure Comedy” reminds me of Neil Young’s “On the Beach,” the arrangements here mirroring that album’s lower-key, vamp-based approach. The orchestral instrumentation in general is fantastic, and fills in a lot of the gaps in the more skeletal songs. But it can’t save some of the mistakes here.
The stretch of songs from “Ballad of the Dying Man” to “A Bigger Paper Bag” plods along somberly, each hovering around the same dirge-like tempo. That’s part of a larger problem: the songs tend to just sound the same. It’s frustrating to know that he has the ability to turn a great melody, but seems to be repressing that in pursuit of something “greater”.
And maybe that something greater is the story his lyrics tell. Melody isn’t the only thing that can make music great; Bob Dylan exists, after all. And it would be criminal to review a FJM album and not talk about the lyrics. Worry not, old fans: he still knows how to turn a phrase like no other. “Total Entertainment Forever,” “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” “A Bigger Paper Bag”: these all are classic FJM barbs, with his trademark blend of quick wit and acerbic humor.
But in a lot of places, his lyrics fall prey to the same tendency that his songwriting does. They both seem to be trying too hard to push beyond his previous scope, to make a statement. The very first words on the album are “The comedy of man starts like this,” and that is about the best encapsulation I can find of the sort of scope he is going for here.
One of the best aspects of “Honeybear” was his ability to find the flaws in other people and, in doing so, hold up a mirror to his own deep imperfections. Here, he seems to be trying to expand both of those things. Instead of singing about other people, he is singing about capital ‘P’ People as a whole.
His ability to deconstruct and minimize a subject seems less endearing when it’s applied on a larger scale — it just seems defeatist. His diagnosis of the state of affairs often seems to boil down to “Well, that shit sucks, but what are you gonna do?”
And on the other hand, his self-deprecation reaches previously unplumbed depths. Whereas the self-diagnosis of his previous works was hilarious and pointed, there are points here where it starts to seem that the self-deprecation is still a form of self-obsession. Listening to some of his lines can sometimes be akin to reading, say, a David Foster Wallace monologue: all fractal paranoia, with no apparent way to step outside of the whole thing and take stock of the situation.
Closing number “In Twenty Years or So” especially falls victim to this mindset, as does “Leaving LA,” the 13-minute odyssey that functions as a creation story of sorts for FJM. He seems to be dressing down the problems of the world while asking us to take his own narrative seriously, which is a lot for anyone to ask. Unless, of course, you’re fully committed to the mythos and act that is Father John Misty, in which case these songs may be a delight for you.
But the most frustrating (and, truthfully, kind of endearing) thing about the album is his ability to know what you’re going to say before you say it. He pre-empts reviews just like this one in “Leaving LA”:
“I’m beginning to begin to see the end / Of how it all goes down between me and them / Some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe / Plays as they all jump ship, / “I used to like this guy / This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die.”
It’s good that he can see criticisms like this coming from a mile away, but that doesn’t make them any less true. It ends up seeming like he’s doing damage control before the fact. Every ironic truism, every reductionist zinger, every self-aimed witticism: they’re all delivered with a wink and a smile, as if to say “Hey, this is all make-believe, anyway.”
He knows how he might comes across: “Oh great, that’s just what we all need / Another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously,” again from “Leaving LA”. It gives him a distance.
It makes it seem like criticism like this is taking it all too seriously. Which might be the comedy he’s been going for all along.
And look at that, he’s got me writing a think piece about him now. Just can’t win.