Music

‘God’s Favorite Customer’ Is Father John Misty’s Darkest And Most Heartbroken Album

Emma Tillman

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In late April, I saw Father John Misty and his exemplary backing band play a stunning hour-long set at the Homecoming Festival in Cincinnati. It was also a little strange, because the artist otherwise known as Josh Tillman hardly spoke between songs. There were no rants about Trump, or the cult of celebrity, or the soul-deadening effects of the internet, or anything else resembling the viral moments that have become fixtures of #FJMcontent on music news websites in recent years. He just played one beautiful, wry tune after another, including several tracks from his forthcoming record, God’s Favorite Customer.

I enjoyed the performance tremendously, though the critic in me immediately went into pundit mode. Clearly, Tillman was over-correcting in the aftermath of 2017’s Pure Comedy, his 76-minute broadside about the state of the world that garnered mostly positive reviews, and yet left a faintly negative impression in the wake of a sometimes playful, more often confrontational press cycle. “This guy is a little too much,” seemed to be the prevailing sentiment. But now that he wasn’t talking, either on stage or off — he’s mostly sworn off interviews to promote God’s Favorite Customer — I immediately psychoanalyzed the man on stage as a reactionary. Fine, I won’t say anything, I imagined Tillman thinking. See how you people enjoy your boring, humorless indie stars now.

People have played this parlor game with Tillman ever since he adopted the Father John Misty persona six years ago. Admittedly, I like thinking about Father John Misty more than just about anyone in music right now. He’s a great artist, and also a genuinely interesting entertainer, and there’s nobody in contemporary indie rock nearly as good at both of those things. But even people who can’t stand him tend to assign motives and machinations to even seemingly innocuous gestures, and Tillman knows this.

“People think I’m toying with them, playing 12-dimensional chess,” he told The New Yorker‘s Nick Paumgarten last year. He was reacting to a Pitchfork column by Greil Marcus in which the venerated music critic claimed that Tillman adopted his swaggering, shamanistic avatar in order “to appear as if touched by God” and “laugh at you” for not getting it.

What was strange about the “touched by God” criticism is that it seemed to disregard Tillman’s songs. How could anyone listen to “Nancy From Now On,” “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.,” or “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution” and believe that Tillman was putting himself above anyone? These are songs that explore the least likable parts of humanity, all of the misanthropic pettiness, raw-nerve vulnerability, and child-like neediness that we all carry in us somewhere and know we can never openly express. While it’s true that online trolls adopt avatars as a kind of hustle, Father John Misty clearly has been an instrument for Tillman to be more honest about himself, not less.

It takes courage to do an inventory of these undesirable feelings in your art, but it also requires a little space and maybe an act of misdirection. Hence the wild interviews, bombastic concerts, and “debauched libertine” facade — it creates the room Tillman needs to speak, with naked earnestness, about the one theme that most obsesses him, which is the need for human connection, no matter how impermanent, as a remedy for existential fear.

When I finally heard God’s Favorite Customer, I realized how misguided my insta-punditry at the Homecoming Festival had been. Sure, it’s possible that Tillman is still a little burnt out just one year after Pure Comedy‘s wall-to-wall media campaign. But this brittle, ravaged, thoroughly heartbroken record makes a convincing counter-argument that Tillman simply can’t talk about these songs, because reliving the pain that God’s Favorite Customer contains, over and over again, would simply be too potent. He’s not playing 12-dimensional chess. This is as simple as checkers, where the only goal is to not get completely wiped out.

What’s known about God’s Favorite Customer is that Tillman wrote these songs during a six-week period when he was living in a hotel, and estranged from his wife and muse, Emma. That’s probably all we need to know, as the album feels rooted in a specific time and place, though Tillman did recently offer this curious comment to the British music magazine Uncut: “This one needed to go down near the blast site, so to speak. If I had waited the industry standard amount of time between cycles I might not have been able to find a way back into the songs.”

The “blast site” line intrigues me, because it suggests that the usual space that Father John Misty affords Tillman might not be enough this time. And yet he also felt more compelled to be honest, by releasing these songs unadorned, than to protect himself.

Throughout God’s Favorite Customer, Tillman expresses pure romantic anguish with virtually no artifice. Take the album’s most gutting track, “Please Don’t Die”:

Oh, honey I’m worried about you
You’re too much to lose

You’re all that I have

And honey I’m worried about you
Put yourself in my shoes
You’re all that I have, so please don’t die
Wherever you are tonight

If Tillman had waited another year before putting this album out, I imagine that he would’ve made “Please Don’t Die” a little funnier and more self-aware. He might’ve included a line about being a “sad sensitive white guy,” to defuse the tension. He could have elaborated on the music, deploying the same orchestras that whipped Pure Comedy up to a grand scale. As it is, “Please Don’t Die” is virtually a demo, stripping the music back to piano, punch-drunk drums, and Tillman’s pained, pleading falsetto. It’s a missive direct from a dark night of the soul.

It’s telling that the album’s lightest song, “Mr. Tillman,” was released as the first single. A decadent travelogue that harkens to the first Father John Misty record, 2012’s Fear Fun, “Mr. Tillman” establishes the hotel as the album’s setting and outlines Tillman’s fractured state of mind. (“Is there someone we can call?” Tillman sings in the voice of a beleaguered concierge. “Perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone?”) On the album, “Mr. Tillman” is preceded by “Hangout At The Gallows,” which seems to enter in the middle of a beaten-down piano-and-bass pulse that recalls the mid-tempo groove of Pure Comedy.

These songs are small talk before Tillman gets to the heavy stuff. The heart of the record feels like a sequel to I Love You Honeybear, the battle-scarred Before Sunset to that record’s romantic Before Sunrise, picking up with the same characters a few years down the road.

While “Mr. Tillman” stays in a familiar sardonic lane, the subsequent tracks vacillate between straight-forward love songs, like the breathtaking “Just Dumb Enough To Try,” and agonized pleas for reconciliation. “Last night I texted your iPhone
 / And said ‘I think I’m ready to come home,'” he sings over stark piano chords on “The Palace,” like Alex Chilton at his most tortured. “I’m in over my head / 
I’m way in over my head.” While Tillman doesn’t get specific, he implies that the fault in this busted-up relationship lies with him. “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter / And you did your living around me?
” he sings in the fascinating, self-lacerating “The Songwriter.” “Would you undress me repeatedly in public
 / To show how very noble and naked you can be?”

Lest this sound like an insufferable pity party, God’s Favorite Customer also manages to address many of the complaints that detractors had about Pure Comedy. At 39 minutes, it’s half as long as its predecessor, and it’s not nearly as lush or opulent. The overused epithet “pretentious” can’t be credibly applied to God’s Favorite Customer. Tillman is more or less back to writing punchy, tuneful pop songs that get philosophical about the nature of love, only now he sounds older and more exhausted with himself. Working again with producer Jonathan Wilson, as well as Jonathan Rado of Foxygen, Tillman has wandered into the bruised-and-battered wing of ’70s singer-songwriter pop, the terrain where Harvest recedes into Tonight’s The Night.

One of the album’s best tracks, “Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All,” recalls previous Tillman tunes like “Holy Shit” and “In Twenty Years Or So,” discussing love’s fleeting nature and how we must cling to it anyway, though his optimism has dimmed. “And the love that lasts forever really can’t be that special / Sure we know our roles
 / How it’s supposed to go / 
Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?” he sings. Of course not. But sometimes a great story can give necessary cover to the process of understanding, and perhaps fixing, your real life.

God’s Favorite Customer is out June 1 on Sub Pop. Buy it here.

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