Release Date: April 7, 2017
Label: Sub Pop
Before I sat down to write this album review, I had to mow the lawn. The rainfall the week before meant the grass was growing quickly, and I didn’t want to be the neighborhood slacker. Dutifully, I put Pure Comedy on my headphones and started mowing at 8:30am. By the time I made it to the back yard, the Colorado sun was already growing uncomfortably hot. Thankfully, I was almost done. I noticed an odd patch of dirt not too far ahead, but it didn’t stick up enough to be an obstacle. And so, over I went.
There was a sickening thud, so I stopped the mower. It turns out that dirt was the excavation from a rabbit nest. A rabbit nest filled with four baby bunnies. One little fellow met his whirling, blade-filled end. The other three scattered to seek sanctuary in the shrubbery. I was wracked with guilt. At the same time, we’d been having a battle of wits with the mother rabbit for the past couple of weeks, trying to figure out a way to stop her from eating our sprouting garden. I didn’t want the rabbits in my yard, but I also didn’t want to do them physical harm. It turns out that this isn’t a bad metaphor for Father John Misty’s album, Pure Comedy.
What a doozy of an album to start a reviews website with. Along with the destructive folly of humanity, some of the Pure Comedy’s themes include the perils of consumerism and the emptiness of the critical enterprise. In fact, Misty so convincingly made his case that I almost gave up on this whole website before I even started. Modern culture and religion are thoroughly lampooned (see “Ballad of the Dying Man” and “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”). The technology-enabled feedback-loop of instant gratification gets its comeuppance on “Total Entertainment Forever.” Turns out, our insatiable desire for escapism won’t actually let us transcend the physical limitations of reality–in other words, we’re all wasting our time staring at screens. The liberalist project is even cautioned in one of those “be careful what you wish for” moments on “Birdie.” Toss in several heaping portions of self-loathing, and it’s clear that few escape judgment. And judgment–in its most apocalyptic, millenarian sense–is definitely on Misty’s mind. The world is ending and he is a helpless bystander, completely in its thrall. He just doesn’t know whether it will be the singularity, the rapture, or revolution that ushers-in the next era.
“Oh great, that’s just what we all need–another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously.”
You might think that all of this would come across as preachy–especially when half of the songs on the album stretch beyond the five-minute mark. To be sure, there are preachy moments, but more often than not, the lyrics work because of Misty’s self-awareness. Like the example above from “Leaving LA,” his willingness to implicate himself along with the rest of humanity is a saving grace. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. With everyone a sinner, Misty is almost gleeful in the way he chucks those rocks around.
What helps all of this pontificating go down even easier, is the fact that it is wrapped in straightforward folk rock arrangements. Piano or guitar take the lead. Bass and spare drumming fill it out. Sprinkle some strings in here, some swooning backing vocals there. It’s the kind of tried-and-true formula that works well for lyrics-driven music like this. And there are snatches of melody sticky enough to get stuck in my head when I should be thinking of something else. That’s my measuring stick for songwriterly success.
Some other reviewers have complained that the album gets bogged-down in a sleepy middle section. If you need diverse and pulsating arrangements to be satisfied, then this may not be for you. Sonically, if not lyrically, Pure Comedy has sections that hearken back to Misty’s work as J. Tillman. Which is to say that it is understated and affecting, suffused with introspective melancholy. That said, you should know that Pure Comedy is not all doom and gloom. Album closer, “In Twenty Years or So” offers a glimmer of hope with its final line:
“It’s a miracle to be alive one more time. There’s nothing to fear.”
For me though, the song will forever and inextricably be linked with images of mutilated baby rabbits. It’s what was playing when I hit the rabbit nest. I’d like to think that would bring a smile to Misty’s face. Not the death and dismemberment, but absurdity of it all.