With his third studio album under the Father John Misty pseudonym, Josh Tillman has once again come through with another experiment in forward thinking indie folk. Pure Comedy feels like the direct sonic sequel to 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, continuing with the same stylings of indie folk, soft rock, and baroque pop – but this time around, it’s Misty’s points of discussion that have changed. The self centered hopeless romanticism of I Love You, Honeybear is nowhere to be seen; instead Tillman opts for musings on the modern world atop his typical backdrop of folk instrumentation.
Title track Pure Comedy opens the album with a bang – this piano rock ballad sets the stage for the rest of the album, getting audiences familiar with the themes of both nihilism and hope that tend to reappear throughout this latest project. His existential muses are rarely overbearing, but rather a nice change from the typical ideas that concern folk music. Father John Misty’s musical reflections on mortality and fame are certainly personal, but there’s more to them than that too. It’s almost driven by moral sensibilities than a sense of self expression; anecdotes and short stories definitely form the backbone of a lot of tracks, but Tillman rather never places himself as the center of his songwriting, instead focusing on society and the human condition as a whole.
Social commentary on the idea of social commentary rings throughout the bittersweet Ballad of the Dying Man, while the moody Two Wildly Different Perspectives explores contrasts between the polar opposites of American politics. Father John Misty rarely shies away from speaking his mind – he’s not telling people what to think either, but in the sociopolitical context of the album and recent developments in socially conscious music, Tillman recognizes his music’s importance and treats it as his duty. Even his critiques of modern pop on tracks like Total Entertainment Forever and The Memo are startlingly relevant, rooted in Tillman’s angst for the modern world.
Tillman’s songs follow a typical structure of slow buildup and climatic release, but it’s a formula that works. The evolution of sparse indie folk soundscapes and moody piano driven ballads seems to always eventuate into dense, but beautiful messes of strings and brass. Opening track Pure Comedy quickly crescendos from a soft rock ballad into a full and lush wall of sound, with Tillman’s vocals bringing the whole thing together beautifully. Pure Comedy’s vocal performances are far stronger and more aggressive (not angry, just more forward) than on Honeybear – even more mild moments seem tempered with a sense of urgency.
Musically, Pure Comedy is a far more cohesive and fluid project than Honeybear too, although on some of the longer and less dynamic tracks this is the album’s major pitfall as well. There are no experiments into indie pop and folktronica like 2015’s True Affection, but instead a suite of musically linked pieces. Even so, Misty has no shortage of ideas. Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution is easily one of Pure Comedy’s most interesting and intense tracks, a sprawling, wild entanglement of string sections and brass hits that cascades wonderfully, while the moody string arrangements and off kilter percussion of Two Wildly Different Perspectives results in another satisfying sonic experiment.
Pure Comedy sees Tillman move further away from his roots in indie folk and instead explore himself through the stylings of baroque pop and soft rock, fields that honestly suit the Father John Misty title better. Moments on tracks like So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain, Total Entertainment Forever, or A Bigger Paper Bag are clear reminders of where Tillman’s talents in both folk and baroque shine strongest – but places in songs like the country ballad Smoochie, while by no means an awful track, stand out as weaker in comparison to the rest of the album. But when Pure Comedy does drop out, it’s only momentarily and never for long.
Pure Comedy proves Father John Misty as equally one of indie folk’s, baroque pop’s and soft rock’s modern safekeepers – once again, Josh Tillman has delivered a satisfying and inventive series of songs. Whether it’s better or worse than I Love You, Honeybear is hard to say at this point – but most importantly, it’s something different, yet another stylistic shift for the pioneering folk rocker.