From playing with them on stage to thinking very deeply about what mobiles say about our societyFlickr: Levi Manchak

For all of Father John Misty’s character-playing and ironic posturing, it was always the songs where he played things a little more straight that struck home the most. The closing trio on 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear were the songs where it actually felt like we were getting a sense of what really drove Josh Tillman, what kept him awake at night. No amount of canned laughter could distract from the existential apathy running through ‘Bored in the USA’. 

It was cause for some optimism, therefore, to find that for his recently released Pure Comedy, Misty was picking up where those songs left off. Out went the moaning about women using the word ‘literally’ wrong, in came the SERIOUS STUFF. Truly, Holden Caulfield would be proud of the subject matter in Pure Comedy, with Misty tackling organised religion, consumer society, and phonies in Los Angeles bands. For an hour and a quarter. 

That last point is important, as this album is long. Good Lord, it’s long. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that all of the songs are very similar sonically: mid-tempo acoustic numbers, with some fairly rudimentary piano work. This is, then, not a particularly inviting album; it’s one that seems to demand a fair amount of time and energy from the listener. If this doesn’t make it sound a laugh a minute, that’s because it’s not. 

“It’s also got an uncomfortably knowing edge, and it’s not half as clever as it sometimes think it is”

The question is, does it reward said investment of time and energy? The answer is partially. Pure Comedy is at times compelling and beautiful. But it’s also got an uncomfortably knowing edge, and it’s not half as clever as it sometimes think it is. 

One of the stronger cuts is ‘Ballad of the Dying Man’, a lament from the perspective of a critic looking back on his life and wondering whether he really has made a difference (and, no, I’ve got no idea what he’s on about, thank you very much). It only goes along at a gentle pace but always has a forward momentum that’s missing in some of the more ponderous tracks on the album. ‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’ stands out, too, building up towards an unexpected and quite beautiful synth flourish.

Not all of the songs are as interesting musically, though, and the lyrics aren’t always there to save them. Misty might have shifted focus a little to some of society’s bigger issues, but some of his targets seem a bit safe. In the title track, for example, he rails against organised religion with its “risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits”, yet in 2017 that doesn’t feel particularly controversial or dangerous.

Another problem with Pure Comedy is that at times it does feel unbearably smug. ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ might be the worst offender here, opening with the couplet of “bedding Taylor Swift, every night inside the Oculus Rift”. Leaving aside the fact there aren’t too many celebrities whose names rhyme with ‘rift’, the choice of Taylor seems particularly on the nose. It’s as though Misty sat down and worked out what which name would cause the most controversy, but with its Kanye connotations, it’s a very knowing controversy.

It’s something that also finds its way into ‘Leaving LA’, the album’s 13-minute centrepiece. Misty admitting that it’s a “ten-verse chorus-less diatribe” doesn’t stop it from being, well, a 10-verse chorus-less diatribe. Whether his old fans will jump ship as Misty also predicts remains to be seen.

That song as a whole is bit like the album in a microcosm. It’s hard to fault its ambition, but there’s also the inescapable feeling that the end result could have been achieved in half the running time. It’s self-reflective, but in ways that can sometimes grate: “oh great, that’s just what we all need, another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously”. There’s also the album’s finest moment of black comedy, as Misty recounts nearly choking on a sweet in a department store while Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Little Lies’ plays in the background. 

Pure Comedy is not an artistic triumph, then. It’s too one-paced for that, and considering how often Misty purports to be riddled with anxiety, a bit too pleased with itself. But it’s far from a failure, or the car crash that was hinted at by some of the eyebrow-raising interviews in advance of the album. Misty couldn’t have turned out another set of sarcastic lust songs, and it’s admirable that he wants to set his ambitions higher. These are serious times we live in, and Father John Misty wants to be the one to soundtrack them