The musical equivalent of a cold margarita on a hot summer day, refreshing and yet somehow a little sour.
Joshua Michael Tillman, aka John Misty, once described his music as “sarcastic Michael Buble.” Implicit in this comparison is the suggestion that Buble’s chosen subgenre is ripe for a little disruption. If the critics acclaim and rapidly growing fan base are any indication, Tillman has achieved this, winning fans with Fleet Foxes as well as his solo work. Pure Comedy is the third studio album under the self-reverential pseudonym, and it’s the musical equivalent of a cold margarita on a hot summer day, refreshing and yet somehow a little sour.
The beauty of his songwriting is in its presence and honesty. Most often when you hear this kind of subtle instrumentation with acoustic guitars and violins, it’s accompanied by overwrought vocal phrasing, poetry and — let’s go there — pretension.
Not so here. There is no place in Misty’s repertoire for insincerity or hyperbole. On “Total Entertainment Forever” he begins very simply “Bedding Taylor Swift/ Every night in the Oculus Rift/ After Mr. and the Mrs./ Finish dinner and the dishes.” It’s anything but pretentious. It’s a chuckle to one generation and fantasy to another. His floating melodies, despite meandering all over the map free of hooks, somehow manage to encourage sing-alongs. Even when you watch him perform, the sound is gentle and the songs pull off the best of Elton John-era emotion and delivery. Yet despite the mellow uncomplicated sound, everyone on the stage is rocking out.
“Ballad of a Dying Man” discusses the very subject of the pretentious, hip and judgmental: “It occurs to him a bit late in the game/ You leave as clueless as you came.” “Birdie” makes the slow songs even slower. Here it becomes most evident how Misty’s songs appear to have very little in the way of recognizable structure or patterns. It’s clear that what is important is the message — not the music.
“Leaving LA” musically recalls the ‘70s, and would not have been out of place in a juke box next to the likes of Billy Joel or even a more serious Arlo Guthrie. Departing from the ‘70s, however, is “Two Wildly Different Perspectives,” which takes spirituality and religion to task. Impossibly clear vocal delivery appears over an infrequent but jazzy percussion beat pushed just off to the side of one channel. Such studio craft is typical of an album that is beautifully produced. You could spend an hour just getting lost in the subtleties of the quite instrumentation of “The Memo.”
Pure Comedy is a fine album that emits comfortable acoustics with bright drum pops and elegantly played piano, but it’s hard to know where to place it for fans. But anyone buying this record should already know what they’re getting into. It will occupy a safe musical space where judgement is nevertheless delivered in hushed but sincere tones, stated through 13 musical monologues about a joke that he’s just observing and we are all living.