I have been listening to Father John Misty’s new album, Pure Comedy, for the past few weeks. Here’s a live performance of one of its songs on SNL. Here is his own introduction to the album:
Pure Comedy is the story of a species born with a half-formed brain. The species’ only hope for survival, finding itself on a cruel, unpredictable rock surrounded by other species who seem far more adept at this whole thing (and to whom they are delicious), is the reliance on other, slightly older, half-formed brains. This reliance takes on a few different names as their story unfolds, like ‘love,’ ‘culture,’ ‘family,’ etc. Over time, and as their brains prove to be remarkably good at inventing meaning where there is none, the species becomes the purveyor of increasingly bizarre and sophisticated ironies. These ironies are designed to help cope with the species’ loathsome vulnerability and to try and reconcile how disproportionate their imagination is to the monotony of their existence.
That description is borne out in the title track, which you can listen to here.
The liner notes essay, which begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes and goes along at some length before concluding that we will all eventually be eaten by bears, are even more depressing. In Louis CK’s latest routine he offers a similarly depressing take on the meaningless of mankind’s existence, and expresses surprise more people don’t just give up on life.
“The whole world is just full of people who didn’t kill themselves today,” he says. “The whole world is just made of people who went, ‘F— it, I’ll keep doing it.’ That’s an interesting thing about life: Life can get very sad and upsetting, but you really don’t have to do it. You don’t have to do anything because you can kill yourself.”
Even when they have a window of a tan car covered with a duct-taped trash bag, people keep on living. Even when you are reduced to singing “I am a cuck” with Tim Heidecker to awkward laughter, as Misty did the other night, you keep on keeping on (language warning).
Father John Misty imagines that he is a rebel. He is, but he does not realize what he is rebelling against. He is six months older than me, and beginning in my teenage years, grew up fifty miles away from where I did. He is the eldest, as I am, and has a brother and two sisters, as I do. He imagines that he is rebelling against his youth – the comfortable suburban life he spent hemmed in by an odd branch of fundamentalist Christianity, which prevented him from listening to secular music. Here, there is a difference: My parents – also conservative and deeply devout – had no such prohibition on what we could hear or what we could read. We were not limited to Slow Train Coming, and so we heard Sympathy for the Devil and All Along the Watchtower and Money For Nothing.
Father John Misty is rebelling not against repression or foolishness but the ephemeral nature of mankind. He seeks permanence in a fleeting age, and he does not find it because the one place he could find an answer he considers closed off, a locked door. He is charting Cormac McCarthy’s “maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” And that this wrongness remains even if we’re with Taylor Swift in the Oculus Rift every night, dating robots until we die.
His upbringing is not incidental here. It is why Misty misunderstands what he thinks he is reacting to in life. He seems to think he is reacting to a senselessness descended upon mankind from thousands of years of believing something that is not true – in God, in a savior, in salvation generally – and to the times we live in and the foolishness inherent in them. He is not. He is in reality a reactionary troubadour rejecting the values of the age. He wants to reject the Godhead, but instead he ends up rejecting Joel Osteen and the prosperity gospel, and Elon Musk and the techno-progressive gospel, and, really, any gospel at all.
Yes, this even includes rebelling against the gospel of Social Justice Warriors.
“The left thinks the revolution is going to look like some battle of ideas that takes place in the culture. Revolution has always been people with nothing to lose getting rid of people with everything to lose. If we can afford to get bent out of shape about Oscar flubs, then we have everything to lose.” Misty is smart enough to see that the political correctness of the times has no path to healing or even feeling better about ourselves – it’s just a turtles all the way down approach to victimhood.
In the Ballad of the Dying Man, he sings: “So says the dying man once I’m in the box/ Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok / And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked / The homophobes, hipsters, and 1% / The false feminists he’d managed to detect / Oh, who will critique them once he’s left?” He checks his social feed before he dies just to see what’s coming next.
Maybe this is all there is for Father John Misty – the bored dissatisfaction of believing the old ways are all lies, while knowing that the promise of today’s utopian techno-progressive moment will solve nothing. But maybe there is something else. To me, Misty’s determination reads like false bravado – an implication that he can’t shake the belief that under the monotony of existence there is perhaps a lining to the world, or at the very least Czeslaw Milosz’s “word wakened by lips that perish, a tireless messenger who runs and runs, Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies, And calls out, protests, screams.”
Maybe underneath all that certainty of oblivion is a layer of deeper doubt, a doubt many people share, bent on the idea that all the world really could be put right again, a doubt that still wonders if there is an architect of love and a knock on the locked door. There is some part of every lost human that wonders deep down if you are sought, and what would happen if you could be found. We wonder if this Friday truly was, and was Good.
Or perhaps this isn’t for show, and Father John Misty does not wonder at all. He is sure of it, he is sure he is right about everything.
Well, that strikes me as an awfully dull way to go through life.