On Father John Misty and Ed Steed

Pure Comedy

Father John Misty’s third album, Pure Comedy, was released earlier this month, but you knew that.

You may be less acquainted, however, with the artist behind the album’s arresting artwork: Ed Steed, a staff cartoonist with The New Yorker. In its pages–a magazine famous for its cartoons–Steed’s darkly comedic scenes linger in a slightly unsettling way.

Steed is a reclusive fellow with virtually no online profile, which makes his motives hard to guess. What is certain is that his drawings are more sinister than the average cartoonist’s.

He mines a space beyond pessimism, and his mockeries of humanity seem to have insights about human nature buried beneath them. Steed’s cartoons tend to feature humans as squat, dishevelled, and oblivious creatures ruled by their basest appetites. They are just as likely to crawl naked as to walk clothed.

Sound like a certain disaffected musician you know? Both Misty and Steed have a sense of humour that is heavily cynical, but not merely cynical. It’s misanthropy with a point: not to wave a club to cause senseless harm, but to wield a scalpel to cut the human ego down to size.

The first time I noticed the creative partnership between Steed and Josh Tillman (the man behind Father John Misty) was in September 2015, when Tillman released a demo version of “The Memo.” The song would later appear in its finished form on the back half of Pure Comedy. For the demo single’s artwork, Tillman employed the below Steed cartoon.

Ed SteedSee what I mean about putting humanity’s hubris in its place? Here we have two architects–a profession often hailed as the pinnacle of vision and clarity–who are, unbeknownst to them, little more than rats in a maze.

I had spotted the cartoon in an issue of The New Yorker just a few weeks earlier, and wondered if Tillman, too, read the magazine, or if someone had put Steed’s cartoon in his hands. Either way, the more I thought about Tillman’s use of the image, the more I realized how fitting it was for him to partner with Steed.

On the cover of Pure Comedy, Steed was given a larger-than-usual canvas to expand upon his rather dim view of human morality. Last weekend, when I bought a copy of the album, I spent some time poring over the intense little figures scrawled all over it, inside and out.

Denizens of the world depicted on the cover of Pure Comedy engage in a variety of degrading behaviours. Listless men sit around viewing pornography, or dig holes to escape from prison. Some individuals fish for and attempt to eat other people, while others engage in BDSM sex, perform bizarre pagan rituals, point handguns at their heads, carry out dangerous and immature pranks, wrestle in mud, climb over barricades, urinate on burning buildings, and play golf with human limbs, all while neglecting their children, who congregate in a corner.

It’s a veritable cornucopia of undignified and vainglorious pursuits. Furthermore, no characters seem exempt: those not directly engaged in the ignominious behaviours are craven in their spectatorship, contributing to the violence at hand. They yell, jeer, and squeeze joy from witnessing defeat.

Non-human figures tend to be sinister in nature. Skeletons, the Grim Reaper, wolves’ heads, scuttling crabs, and Hitchcockian birds stalk the halls of a cold stone castle on the back cover of the album. With the help of a demon, a nun beats a man with a phallus.

Through it all, facial expressions are key. Steed’s characters usually either have their mouths agape in rage, or a wide, toothy grin indicating pure, Dionysian glee. A third and rather telling facial expression, however, is boredom.

This suggests that the scene depicted in Pure Comedy is not only a site of unhinged pleasure-seeking, but also a place infected with anhedonia: many characters appear unable to enjoy their hedonistic pastimes. Those men looking at pornography are heavy-lidded and bored, and those fishermen are disappointed with their catch.

It’s all pretty bleak, but then again, so is the lyrical world painted by Tillman. He describes humanity as a “horror show” of “godless animals” who elect “clowns” to lead them — and that’s just the first song! Yes, Pure Comedy finds him once again mustering his world-famous ennui. Whereas 2012’s Fear Fun found him directing this pointed, world-weary attitude at drugs, and 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear saw him deploy it to probe love and marriage, on Pure Comedy he aims at more general targets like Internet culture and the rise of techno-escapism (whether that takes the form of fake news or a virtual reality headset).

He seems especially bothered by technological addiction, and how it tends to displace healthier, more reflective modes of being and relating (“Total Entertainment Forever,” “Ballad of the Dying Man”). On “The Memo,” he sings what may be my favourite line on the album:

Cameras to record you and mirrors to recognize

And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time

Anyone who has ever found themselves repeatedly skimming old social media posts or checking their Twitter analytics will likely feel a pang of recognition when they hear this line.

Anyway, what to make of these two artists’ creative partnership? Well, the product is rather unflattering for what I presume is their primary audience (humans), but if you can push past the off-putting mental and literal images, I think there are insights to be found within this partnership. Some find Father John Misty annoying as hell, but I think that’s sometimes because they feel the sting of recognition in his lyrics, and then have a knee-jerk reaction. Others seem too bothered by what they perceive as Tillman’s hypocrisy, forgetting that even a hypocrite can be right sometimes.

It has certainly been interesting to watch the indie music blogosphere turn on Misty during his most recent press cycle (in his defense, this tends to happen to many artists after three albums anyway). And yes, sometimes he does come off a little too haughty in interviews. Still, for a technological pessimist like myself, reared on Neil Postman and Sherry Turkle books, I have to say: it’s more than a little refreshing to listen to someone finally voice some criticisms of bourgeois contemporary life, rather than just going with the flow.

What do you think? Is Misty unbelievably irritating, or do his critiques resonate, regardless of their popularity?

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