After watching a full headlining set with Father Johnny Misty at the Hollywood Bowl last night with two civilians (read: non-music industry folk) I was left with an unanswerable question: Wait, why is he such a divisive figure in the press? Witnessing a gorgeous, cinematic stage, his flawless, mournful songwriting that borders on playfully absurd, along with Misty’s pop star level charisma and a full orchestra accompanying him on selections from a four-album discography, it was impossible for these newcomer fans to fathom how what they’d read and heard could differ so greatly from what they experienced.
Welcome to the life of a Father John Misty fan, a baffling and frustrating experience for many.
Re-reading some of the press around his 2017 album, Pure Comedy — which includes a self-described “scandalous” interview (in which he is dubbed a “killjoy philosopher”) and a host of reviews written with the kind of acidic undertone it’s rare to encounter outside of early ’00s critics on female-driven pop music — I had even less of an answer.
I’d never been able to comprehend those articles in real time, and they make even less sense to me a year later. Continually frustrated by the way Josh Tillman became the punching bag for a media cycle that seemed bent on dubbing him a troll, it was fascinating to watch the reaction to his 2018 album, which came sans press cycle. He gave zero interviews and didn’t offer much context on the album at all, aside from noting it was written during a difficult personal period. This time around, fawning ensued!
Not that it’s undeserved, by any means. God’s Favorite Customer is a fourth brilliant entry in the Father John Misty discography, which is preceded, mind you, by at least eight entries under the moniker J. Tillman that racked up none of the attention, accolades, or resentment that his latest persona has accumulated. Telling the Times that his old work was “sad bastard music,” I wonder what he considers God’s Favorite Customer to be? Either way, the album translates live and on stage just as well as it did with critics this spring.
From the Elton John glitz of “Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All,” to the Billy Joel heartache of “Just Dumb Enough To Try,” Misty’s latest is well-suited to the larger venues, like the Bowl, that have come along with it. This new record is lurid and damaged, veering closer to despair than the cultural criticisms of Pure Comedy, the lush romanticism of I Love You, Honeybear, or the acid-addled adventuring of Fear Fun. As a massive fan of all four records, I don’t find it to be remarkably better or worse any of the other entries, instead, it is right on par with his previously established bar for excellence, and reiterates him as one of the most consistent songwriters of the decade.
And when it comes to songwriters working in the folk-rock milieu there’s arguably no one more successful than Tillman — along with the rise of his own star, both Beyonce and Lady Gaga requested co-writes — and there’s certainly no one more fascinating. No one has written about the dissatisfaction of our current generation with more sardonic grace than “Bored In The USA,” a song that once again had a music writer dismissing him as “no Roland Barthes.” The acrid response to a songwriter incorporating his perspective on our post-capitalist, post-modern world has been rife with comparisons like these, immediate, inexplicable jumps to figures like Barthes, or Carl Sagan, who worked in philosophy and science, and not songwriting and performance.
Given the choice, I’d rather hear someone try to grapple with the tiny horrors and massive atrocities that permeate our newsfeeds and our lives than pure pop bliss escapism, and I respect someone who manages to incorporate both into his catalog even more. Especially for a songwriter of his caliber, it seems like a cop-out to not comment. Our lives exist on both ends of this spectrum, and incorporating both elements into his work is a kind of courage few songwriters currently possess, precisely because his take will never be perfect, it will never be a manicured philosophical pamphlet. It will always be the flawed, funny, f*cked up vehicle of a folk-rock song, and that’s all he’s ever claimed to give us: The business of living.
By the time “Bored In The USA” came on toward the end of his set last night — a song off I Love You, Honeybear that he infamously performed live on David Letterman, parodying expectations and playing with laugh tracks, among other things — I was reminded that performing is what Tillman does best, and he is best suited to do that, at this time, inside the persona of Father John Misty. Perhaps that’s why, for this record, Tillman himself sat out for a round. Even on stage, he offered no banter between songs.
Then again, spending too much time online can skew your perspective; last night upwards of 10,000 people came out to see Father John Misty, sway along, scream the lyrics back, and give standing ovations at key moments throughout the set. Regardless of the hot and cold status critics may take on Misty, his crowd reminded me that all too often, the real story remains out in the stands, with the fans, not the writers. Into Tillman’s silence come the voices of fans, new and old, who see something of themselves in both his playful hysterics and subdued passages of grief. Who see, not a troll at all, but a companion.
God’s Favorite Customer is out now via Sub Pop Records. Get it here.