Making Sense of Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy

What happens when the whole world suddenly becomes one of post-facts and suddenly your post-irony persona starts to lose its magic? That’s the question that Josh Tillman seems to be asking himself throughout his surreal short film Pure Comedy, that acts as a teaser for his upcoming third album.

The crisis that Tillman presents in the short film is that perhaps his entire persona is something that’s fast become useless. Tillman created Father John Misty-a prototypical sleazy lounge lizard-as a way to insert some much needed humour into his almost unbearably earnest folk music (which he seems to have since quietly disowned). Father John Misty proved to be a stumble onto genius on Tillman’s behalf. It allowed him to take almost nothing seriously and yet comment on everything, no matter how trivial. Earnestness sneak into his work, and be masked with a wry sense of humour, taking the edge off somewhat.

Significantly, the persona meant that he could be biting and self-aware without need for comment on anything about himself, which in a sense meant that he was totally impenetrable (with regards to criticism, though I suspect Misty himself would just leave it at the word impenetrable). All evoking a charm that’s been on full display for the touring cycle of his last album, 2015’s brilliant I Love You, Honeybear. After all, who else could parody Ryan Adam’s covering Taylor Swift by covering Taylor Swift in the style of Lou Reed? Or fill their Instagram with photo’s of themselves staring at a phone, without it seeming unbearably pretentious in an ironic hipster way?



For a long time, it seemed as though there was no stone that Misty would leave unturned, until around mid July last year when, for the first time, that persona started to slip. Just over four months after the release of I Love You, Honeybear, reality tv star Donald Trump announced that he was running for president. What followed was a media tizzy surrounding the very farce of it all – what contestant from The Apprentice would be chosen for vice-president? Could there be a reality TV show called ‘The White House’ – the type of stuff that Misty should be perfectly at home with. But gradually, it became very apparent that this wasn’t a joke.

The culmination of realisation that this wasn’t funny anymore was on the 21st of July last year when it was confirmed that Donald Trump was going to get a shot at the presidency. Misty was due to preform at a festival in New Jersey shortly thereafter, but cut his set short after a single song, saying that he couldn’t give in to ‘entertainment’ anymore in light of what had occurred that week. He went on to tell the crowd that the laughs in his song ‘Bored in the USA’ where born out of the fact that while he was describing a horrible dystopia, a sort of idiocracy they could take solace in the fact that such a thing could never actually happen.

“Entertainment is stupid” is how Misty summed up his profession to the crowd assembled in front of a battleship at XPEN fest, and fittingly a lyric debuted early in Pure Comedy is about how he’s “busted his knees” for the sake of entertainment. Over the course of 25 increasingly surreal minutes we see the singer record snippets of songs from his upcoming album, drive around a hellish alternate LA and mope around the house, painting and doodling, especially disturbed that the Gandhi he was drawing ended up looking more like Freud.

While not revealing very much, it the short film does perhaps hint that Misty might be offering up some changes on his point of view on his upcoming album. He decries comedy, something that he’s always had a deft hand for, as being something a “madman would conceive”. The track ends with Misty coming to the conclusion that “each other’s all we got”.  The film ends with Misty singing about his worries that this whole human experiment thing might be up soon as he climbs into a hearse.

So far, so stonery. The short film ends with a gradual zooming in on earth from the milky way, while a creepily automated voice (think Radiohead’s “fitter happier” only a bit more like the Tesco’s self service announcer) describing a man who falls to earth and gradually realises how alike everything is. Ultimately, that’s probably the main point that Misty is aiming to distill in this bizarre film. Where his previous efforts place him at an ironic distance from everybody else, ‘Pure Comedy’ suggests that his latest effort is perhaps going to be a little bit less biting than his previous work. David Foster Wallace, a conceivable touchstone for Father John Misty, famously said that the constraint of irony is that it only allows one to parody something that already exists and that it robs an individual of the ability to be sincere about something. While this hopefully doesn’t mean that Misty is going to metamorphose into Mumford and Sons, it might mean less of a barrier between him and Josh Tillman on his ‘Pure Comedy’. Hopefully, he’ll remain just as alluring.

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