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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.