(Sub Pop Records, released Fri 7 April 2017)
Back with his third studio album, Father John Misty has brought the same grand arrangements and vitriolic lyricism which characterised predecessor I Love You, Honeybear onto the latest offering Pure Comedy. But whereas his second album focused more on butchering the memories of a doomed relationship, here Misty has honed his cynicism but widened the field of play, adopting a scattergun approach in which everything from consumerist culture to Hollywood comes under fire.
Pushing 80 minutes, this is a full-blooded diatribe against the sorry mess that the human race has become, starting with the title track which opens the album. The Pure Comedy of its name refers to our ridiculous plight right from the moment of birth and the increasingly ridiculous reasons we come up with to justify our existence on this orb, with religion taking centre stage in the crosshairs early on. “They get terribly upset / When you question their sacred texts / Written by women-hating epileptics” he warbles, rallying against the self-important bigotry of theology.
The remaining twelve tracks continue in much the same vein, with eloquent bile reserved for the apparent march of progress with regards to technology on Total Entertainment Forever: “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift… Not bad for a race of demented monkeys / From a cave to a city to a permanent party”. Other attacks focus on social media (“Eventually the dying man takes his final breath / But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ‘bout to miss”, The Ballad of the Dying Man) and the Emperor’s New Clothes-style preoccupation with the next big thing (“I’m gonna steal some bedsheets / From an amputee / I’m gonna mount em on a canvas / In the middle of the gallery / I’m gonna tell everybody / It was painted by a chimpanzee… If it’s fraud or art / They’ll pay you to believe,” The Memo).
All of this makes for a very entertaining assault on all of the signposts of cultural degradation with which we are collectively bombarded every day, and Misty also does an excellent job of treading the fine line between pastiche and preachiness. Indeed, he even draws attention to this grey area in Leaving L.A. with the lines “She’s like, ‘Oh great, that’s just what we all need / Another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.’” Misty acknowledges the relentlessly heavy and sardonic tone of the album and in doing so, nullifies that as a criticism.
But while the misanthropy of the lyricism can certainly be excused, the monotone lethargy of the music sadly can not. It’s always been somewhat apparent that Misty is more of a poet than a musician (another point which he himself acknowledges on Leaving L. A.: “I never learned to play the lead guitar / I always more preferred the speaking parts”) but here it’s positively glaring. Though each of the songs has clearly been carefully crafted and shows substantive musical ability, there is very little in the way of melodic diversity throughout the album. At times it even becomes a bit of a slog, especially on the five tracks which exceed five minutes in length (Leaving L. A., though a lyrical highlight, is a snore-inducing 13 minutes of slow-paced satire). It’s less Misty raging against the machine than him giving a responsibility-shirking shrug as the machine massages his shoulders.
For sheer wordplay and critical insight alone, Pure Comedy is heart-breaking and hilarious at the same time and would probably scoop a full five stars. However, the sluggishness of its melodies badly lets it down and means it’s not quite as powerful as either his previous work or as it could have been. Nonetheless, it’s still an enjoyable album and a wry form of escapism from today’s increasingly infuriating world.