Following I Love You, Honeybear, an album as warped as it is heartfelt, filled with earnest declarations of love, deep self-reflection, boisterous overtures, and witty, dark humor, Pure Comedy feels like it is chastising the fans who latched onto Father John Misty’s newfound success. Josh Tillman has chosen for his third effort under the moniker to be a grander, outward statement than his previous albums, using his soapbox to diagnose the ailments he believes humanity to be facing. As one might expect, the result is bloated and self-congratulatory in a way that lacks the potency of his first two records.
The album is a blatant critique of organized religion, but it feels more as though it’s completely baffled by the ridiculousness of the institution than an all-out assault on anyone’s belief system. Father John Misty truly doesn’t understand how anyone could give themselves over to such an inexplicable ideology that often goes against their own best interest, as he muses on songs like “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” and “Pure Comedy”: “Their languages just serve to confuse them / Their confusion somehow makes them more sure / They build fortunes poisoning their offspring / And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure.”
While Father John Misty has experimented with various genres in the past, Pure Comedy lacks aesthetic diversity and can start to bleed together for listeners who aren’t willing to put in the work required to digest it. As he works to unleash his inner Randy Newman, Tillman slips into piano ballads in full force, stripping away instrumentation in order to draw attention to the lyrics. Still, there are sonic tweaks sprinkled in, such as subtle electronic hints (“Smoochie,”) and twisted distortion (“Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” ”Birdie”).
Father John Misty has always been cynical, but as his public persona continues to become a caricature of itself, it seems as though he entertains himself by belittling his fans. He doesn’t care if he alienates people. In fact, that appears to be his goal, particularly with “Leaving LA,” a brutal stab at the entertainment industry that feels especially hypocritical coming from a white singer-songwriter. In doing so, he seems bent on thinning out the crowd who might be receptive to his message.
While this is clearly an ambitious, conceptual project, one could make the argument – quite convincingly – that Pure Comedy is Father John Misty’s least impressive effort to date. There are plenty of moments of satisfaction on the album, but they have a tendency of getting lost in an avalanche of the artist’s own ego. The set-up to Pure Comedy is long, and for many, the punchline won’t be worth the effort.