If you have questions about the new album from Father John Misty, Pure Comedy, you are not alone. Are we supposed to collapse into a depressed stupor after listening to it, or are we supposed to laugh it off, knowing that everything will be okay so long as we don’t think about it too much? And who is Father John Misty now, how threadbare is the cord holding up the mask behind which Josh Tillman operates? Is he like Heraclitus who weeps openly at the tragedy of existence, or given the title of the album, like Democritus, still the ironist who publicly laughs at the absurdity? Is he a minstrel philosopher, or is Josh Tillman just full of sh*t?
Walking into the beautifully restored Kings Theatre in Brooklyn earlier this week, I had a certain amount of trepidation about how I would feel about these questions upon exiting the theatre. To me, the telling would be in the nature of the spectacle; from it I hoped to learn what he really meant by the word comedy. Is it simply a series of things at which to laugh, an ironic name for an album that seems to declaim the tragedy of the whole enterprise of Life, or something else, something a little deeper?
The show began with the title track of the album and a continuation of the iconic album art, which gives the album its atmospheric contemporaneousness almost as much as the music does. The cartoons, a revisiting of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights for the twenty-first century from artist Ed Steed, were projected behind the band, with a circle functioning, just as on the album art, as a Moon and Sun, as well as a magnifying glass for the grotesque but sadly familiar figures parading across the backdrop. Much like the Garden of Earthly Delights, you can’t look away. And I didn’t have to. The parade of cartoons continued through the first four songs on the album following the title track.