On 'Pure Comedy,' Father John Misty speaks to a divided nation

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Father John Misty performs on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert on April 4.

Nobody needs to tell Father John Misty how annoying he can be.

The no-longer-bearded, never-at-a-loss-for-words songwriter born Josh Tillman has just released a 75-minute opus called Pure Comedy. It's a 12-song album with the cojones to wear its outsize ambitions and The Way We Live Now earnestness on its sleeve. The album contains a 13-minute song without a chorus at its center. It includes an 1,800-word essay about humanity’s failure to act in its own best interests, and begins a song about virtual reality and the 24/7 entertainment industrial complex with the attention-getting rhyme: “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift.”

Pure Comedy (Sub Pop *** 1/2) is Misty’s third album using the stage name under which he has risen to indie prominence, starting with 2012’s Fear FunHis tour comes to the Skyline Stage at the Mann Center on Sept. 15.

Before that, his satiric sense of humor and weakness for self-referential in-jokes were largely unknown to music fans who knew him best as the drummer for mild-mannered Pacific Northwest harmony-singing band Fleet Foxes. 

But traces of the meta Misty were present earlier, on the -- count 'em -- eight austere folk-rock albums the 35-year-old singer released as J. Tillman between 2003 and 2010. One of those, which came out in 2006, was called Long May You Run, J. Tillman

The 13-minute song on Pure Comedy is “Leaving LA.” It’s the one song of Misty’s own that he played last summer at the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden’s Wiggins Park.

He was widely bashed for that truncated performance, both at the event and by a global social-media audience. Misty defied “shut-up-and-sing” expectations. 

Instead, on the day after Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, he referred to his then-fully-bearded self as “homeless Chris Isaak” and to Trump as “an entertainment tyrant.” 

He asked: “Do you suspect you don’t have the right to be entertained?” Besides the previously unheard “Leaving LA,” he offered only a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” before leaving the audience confused.    

In its recorded version, “Leaving LA” takes a rightful place in the tradition of songs on the dark side of the City of Angels -- including Guns N' Roses “Welcome to the Jungle,” 2Pac’s “To Live and Die in L.A.,” and Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway.” It’s a 10-verse dirge accentuated by composer Gavin Bryars’ string arrangement.

It’s also a self-lacerating song. “Just what they all need,” Misty sings. “Another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so g- seriously.” The performer with the silly name cops to feeling “a little less human with each release / Closing the gap between the mask and me.” He imagines what his fans must be thinking: “Some 10-verse chorusless diatribe plays as they all jump ship / I used to like this guy, but this new s- makes me want to die.” 

Pure Comedy takes aim at narcissism, anti-intellectualism, religion, self-delusion, and algorithms that presume to understand our musical taste. Tillman grew up in a strict religious household in Maryland, and as he goes down on his knees to plead on stage or theatrically raises his voice to the heavens, he reveals a touch of the preacher within.

“I’m not bamboozled when people don’t like me,” he told the New York Times last month. “I am kind of annoying.” In an era of ever-present social-media outrage, it often seems that, pop-culturally speaking, you’re nobody till somebody hates you. 

And with Kanye West currently sidelined, Misty fills in nicely as an object of invective, an ambitious artist willing to risk making big statements who has a hard time keeping his mouth shut. “I get sick pleasure out of going on the internet and reading about how much people hate me,” he told the Guardian.

One pithy Pure Comedy song is “Two Wildly Different Perspectives.” It doesn’t take sides. It just elegantly lays out unyielding points of view, with the melodic facility and the attractive tenor voice that makes Misty’s musings more appealing as music than when written on a page: “One side says, ‘Y’all go to hell!' / The other says, ‘If I believed in God, I’d send you there' / But either way we make some space, in the hell that we create.”

Misty can be so stern it’s tempting to label him Father John Misanthrope. But for all its seriousness, Pure Comedy is also pretty funny. In the somber, cello-accompanied “The Memo,” sampled voices interject between the lines comments like, “This guy just gets me!” and, “This is totally my song of the summer!” The final act of the protagonist of “Ballad of the Dying Man” is to check his news feed “To see what he’s about to miss / It occurs to him a little late in the game / We leave as clueless as we came.”   

The never-named divisive figure who looms over Pure Comedy is President Trump. Misty completed the album in October, but it’s informed by the nation’s divisions that were exposed throughout the election season, during which the former Celebrity Apprentice’s campaign was a long-running ratings winner.   

Misty did an awkward interview on BBC TV last month in which, after resisting breakfast-show banter, he finally gave a straight answer about why he wanted to go beyond writing about romance on the follow-up to 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear.

“I think there’s a distinction to be made between entertainment and art,” he said. “Entertainment is largely about forgetting about your life for an hour or so. But art can serve the function of remembering your life. We’re pretty inundated with entertainment as it is, and I think that a lot of that kind of culture of pure entertainment is responsible for things like Donald Trump happening. ... My president is a reality TV star, I’m not sure if you guys heard about that.”

Pure Comedy was produced with longtime collaborator Jonathan Wilson, who specializes in the early-1970s singer-songwriter sound that Misty is increasingly drawn to. It runs long, and is probably best consumed in its double-LP format, both to fully appreciate its old-school analog production, and to divide its sometimes sluggish songs of substance into digestible chunks.

But as an often bleak, frequently beautiful album made by a divisive figure about a divided America, it’s an impressive achievement. Not the least so, because Misty is a self-aware artist who knows as well as anybody that he can come off as a pretentious windbag. Still, he strives to say something universal and human, and succeeds. “Hate to say it,” he sings at the hushed climax of the sweeping title track. “But each other’s all we’ve got.”