Last spring term, Father John Misty’s third album, “Pure Comedy,” took over the Emerald’s Arts and Culture desk. Three A&C writers broke down the album in a rare Triple Take review, each with their own opinions on the character the former Fleet Foxes drummer inhabits. A little over a year later, the Emerald A&C desk is back — and ready to break down another album from Josh Tillman’s alter ego. This time we tackle “God’s Favorite Customer,” in which Tillman hits rock bottom. Hopefully, we won’t follow suit.
Read the Emerald’s previous Triple Take here.
Last year when Father John Misty released his sprawling take on modern humanity, “Pure Comedy,” I was deep in the throes of a bad sinus infection. The album’s tracks were dire and slow, moving through my ears like the cough syrup through my veins. Despite this, “Pure Comedy” was more of a collective experience for listeners like me — both a comment and a critique on expansive technology, political divides and the fate of humanity through all the commotion those things cause. The ever-sarcastic personality addressed these big ideas well, so well that sometimes it was hard to figure out what was authentic and what wasn’t.
But Tillman’s new album, ‘God’s Favorite Customer,” finds the songwriter addressing a lingering depression, and it’s not necessarily one caused by the fate of the world. This time around he addresses mental illness, marriage issues and the concept of his own celebrity through a more rollicking sound. There’s clashing cymbals and expansive piano, and Tillman’s soaring voice, still. He’s just addressing himself, not the world.
In the absence of languid “Leaving LA,” — which capped in at 13 minutes — there are songs that explore suicidal tendencies and self-destructive behavior. Just because Tillman is exploring this internal state doesn’t mean that his sense of humor or his musicianship — defined by his soaring voice, clean piano licks and musical breaks with roomy acoustic guitar — have changed.
On the album’s lead single, “Mr. Tillman,” which sounds like he’s unraveling right in front of the listener, he sings from the point of a hotel concierge: “Jason Isbell’s here as well / And he seemed a little worried about you.” There’s a tinge of apathy and comedy in his voice when singing about the other musician. Tillman has always had a sense of humor that’s bordered on dangerously dark and in this album, there’s no shortage of it. It just manifests as more emotional, and maybe more true to his own character than his chosen moniker.
Yet, there are still moments where Tillman generates laughter at his sad state, even in some of the album’s most sincere songs. “Last night I wrote a poem / I must have been in the poem zone,” he sings early in “The Palace.” But later, he sings, ‘I’m in over my head,” almost wailing, and it’s easy to know exactly how he feels.
But two tracks before “The Palace,” Tillman sings “Nothing surprises me much” in an eerily similar way to Shania Twain in “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” He may switch between the humor and the commentary, still, but it’s more subtle than “Pure Comedy.” Maybe that’s because of how personal this album seems to be, but it’s hard to tell. “I’ll take it easy with the morbid stuff,” he sings on “Please Don’t Die.” There’s no way in hell that the Father John Misty everyone knows will actually do that, right?
On the title track from his 2017 album “Pure Comedy,” Josh Tillman — better known these days by the moniker Father John Misty — decided to become somewhat of a social critic. Backed by lush orchestration, he tackled a number of big topics such as politics, religion and entertainment.
But instead of sounding like a ‘70s John Lennon, Tillman came across like a high schooler who had just discovered existentialism. Despite Tillman’s valid viewpoints, the lyrics felt like low hanging fruit. Yes, life is absurd, society is messed up and religion is weird, but nobody needs Father John Misty to tell them that.
It might be a good thing then that Tillman stepped away from this broader social commentary for his fourth Misty album, “God’s Favorite Customer.” Concerned more with Tillman’s personal emotions and struggles, the record is dark, sincere and candid — and possibly some of the songwriter’s strongest work yet.
A standout track, “Mr. Tillman,” establishes themes of emotional breakdown early in the album. Keeping with a typical self-aware approach, Tillman frames the lyrics through the perspective of a deeply concerned hotel concierge.
Referencing numerous instances of odd and unhealthy behavior — “And oh, just a reminder about our policy / Don’t leave your mattress in the rain if you sleep on the balcony” — he creates a scenario that is both laughable and worrisome.
Tillman takes a similar approach on the song “Please Don’t Die,” taking an even darker subject matter with choruses sung from the perspective of his wife. On this track, the album achieves some of its most grim and forthright lyrics with literal pleas against suicide, or at least life-threatening behavior: “You’re all that I have so please don’t die / Wherever you are tonight.”
“Date Night” offers up some comic relief with Tillman taking on the character of a self-assured asshole. “Come on, I bet you know most of my friends / They’re some real exclusive dudes from just around the bend,” he sings. Eye-rolls are acceptable here. Tillman is, of course, in on the joke.
The record’s production, which Tillman handled himself with help from a few frequent collaborators, is solid as usual. The sound is similar to a few post-breakup Beatles albums — the ones produced by Phil Spector — which is surely intentional considering how well Misty’s work fits in with ‘70s pop and singer/songwriter music.
The song “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All” not only qualifies as one of Tillman’s best song titles but also as one of his most satisfying melodies. With a slightly faster tempo, it’s one of the more upbeat tracks on the album. The piano hook, in the beginning, provides a much-needed jolt after some of the album’s gloomier points.
Near the end of the record, on a track entitled “The Songwriter,” Tillman contemplates switched roles in which he is the muse and his wife writes the music, and it is one of the best moments on the album.
“Would you undress me repeatedly in public / To show how very noble and naked you can be,” Tillman sings. It’s an arresting line that not only displays Tillman’s own shame, but it goes far enough to put the audience in an uncomfortable position just for listening — like listeners are invading his privacy.
That, however, should be a natural reaction. Tillman may still act clever as hell, but the weight of the album comes from its honesty and pathos. “God’s Favorite Customer” further displays Father John Misty’s talent for songwriting and functions as one of his most sincere moments yet.
The term “Lennon-esque” has been popping up in reviews and blogs about Josh Tillman. The comparison isn’t 100 percent apt — Tillman carries Lennon’s swagger but detests the band that made him famous. But the two collectively share a manic form of self-absorption. “I’m an artist,” Lennon was once quoted. “Give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.”
Tillman is an artist, alright. The singer-songwriter and former Fleet Foxes drummer released eight earnest folk albums under “J. Tillman” to very little fanfare, before his career nearly went down in flames. His songwriting ability was obvious and prolific; he just needed a credible outlet.
He found it in “Father John Misty,” a bearded hipster who writes ballads about threesomes, America and the concept of celebrity. Underneath self-serious, soulful folk instrumentation is a heightened degree of self-awareness. His persona is made to be hated and hilarious. “I can’t imagine a guy who calls himself Father John Misty having a good reason for anything,” he once told Seth Meyers.
Tillman didn’t act that way on his last album, “Pure Comedy,” which took a broad, searing look at society’s ills. Accompanied by an 1800 word essay that reads like a rambling acid trip, the record is 75 minutes of unfiltered bloviating. It wasn’t for everyone — though the Emerald consensus was largely positive — and at worst its title was unbearably ironic. It was an indication that Misty had become his own victim.
“God’s Favorite Customer,” the latest FJM effort, is the first time Tillman has actively worked against the persona that made him famous. Written during a two-month bender at a hotel, the album is devoid of a broad concept. Instead, we’re offered snapshots of Father John Misty on the straits, sans his usual swagger. “Is there someone we should call Perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone,” says a concerned concierge on the lead single, “Mr. Tillman.”
The album is a welcome change of pace for Tillman both lyrically and musically. Largely self-produced, “God’s Favorite Customer” leans more heavily on complex instrumentation than its predecessors. “Just Dumb Enough To Try” morphs a somber piano ballad into a pulsing wave of sadness. “Date Night” sends Tillman’s voice through an echo-y filter while he obviously struts through an evening out. “I’m the second coming / I’m the last to know / I didn’t get invited but I know where to go,” he drawls.
Elsewhere, Tillman maintains his romantic side, dedicating several songs to his wife Emma and revealing layers to their marriage. “Last night I texted your iPhone / And said I’m ready to come home / I’m in over my head,” he croons in a cry for help in “The Palace.” In the same song, he sings about “the poem zone” and surviving on room service. Even at his lowest point, Tillman’s wit is as funny as ever.
“God’s Favorite Customer” is essentially a war between two sides of Josh Tillman, waged as if the artist has finally realized the damage his persona can cause. “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter / And you made your living off of me,” he tells Emma on “The Songwriter.” It’s the first time Tillman has wrestled with the consequences of being the judgemental funny man. Instead of taking aim at social media and “bullshit bands,” he takes aim at himself, and the change in direction is as surprising as it is effective. A little humility goes a long way, even for Father John Misty.