Roundtable: Father John Misty - God's Favorite Customer
by Ed Hamblie, Evan Phillips, Finn Dickinson, Oliver Rose
I must admit that, even as a staunch acolyte of the Father, I had my concerns when his fourth LP was announced. Faithlessly, I fretted that another record so close to 2017’s Pure Comedy, a sprawling apocalyptic self-administered psychiatric evaluation, could only be disappointing. After all, the cocktail of cynicism, irony and self-indulgence at the core of the Father John persona had reached critical mass within Pure Comedy, and it seemed that unless something changed, another record would cause our Father to collapse in on himself like the world’s beardiest black hole.
But something has changed. God’s Favourite Customer sees Josh Tillman hanging up his cynical coat and shedding four to five layers of irony, becoming vulnerable for perhaps the first time since his discovery of mariachi horns and hallucinogens anointed him Father John and ended his previous incarnation’s runaway proliferation of morose folk ballads. It’s difficult to discuss this record without an awareness of just how tethered it is to a personal crisis that saw Josh Tillman living in a hotel temporarily separated from his wife Emma, the subject of 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear. Father John informs us a minute into opening banger Hangout at the Gallows that he is “treading water as [he] bleeds to death”, setting the tone for the deep heartache of the following nine songs. The questioning refrain that follows is worth mentioning for the wonderfully utilised bundle of “oooh yeah yeah yeahs” it rests atop.
Just Dumb Enough to Try, Please Don’t Die, and The Palace uncompromisingly lay bare this album’s raison d’etre. In contrast to Tillman’s uniform vocal performances, he lets himself waver as he delivers the line “I’m in over my head” in The Palace, and it breaks my heart every time. This song also houses a new favourite Misty lyric - “last night I wrote a poem/I must have been in the poem zone”. The man is a genius.
A few tracks disappoint, however. Date Night sounds like a cut from 2012’s Fear Fun in the swaggering flair of whimsical but nonetheless fairly impenetrable lyrics. This track lacks both heartrending imagery and a spontaneous harmonica/saxophone/distorted guitar part (delete as appropriate), replacing them with an odd splintered synth noise that’s actually quite unpleasant. Disappointing Diamonds leaves you wanting, and this is not for lack of wit, because there’s lots of that (seen in lines that turn love on its head, a highlight being “like a pervert on a crowded bus / the glare of love bears down on us”). It’s too short, and feels underrealised.
Nonetheless, as a complete work, God’s Favourite Customer provides a heaped spoonful of heartache that neatly counterbalances _I Love You, Honeybear_’s sugary infatuation, and its vulnerability strips away some of _Pure Comedy_’s sheer pomp and grandeur while also throwing in instrumental flourishes and production choices that tastily echo Fear Fun. My faith is renewed once more.
Individual Rating: 4⁄5
Picks: Hangout at the Gallows, Mr Tillman, Please Don’t Die
Is it chance or rather some strange twist of fate that two popular artists released albums on June 1st that went some of the way towards dismantling or moving past their much written about alter-egos? Maybe Hubris has become the new star sign for this month, but I digress. God’s Favourite Customer had me nervous right out of the gate. Having worshipped in no small gestures at the altar of Misty (real name Josh Tillman) in the past (his last record Pure Comedy was my favourite of 2017), I approached this record feeling simultaneously whelmed by the teaser tracks and nervous that this streak of great albums that started in 2012 couldn’t possibly carry on much longer. Well add another bar to the tally, brothers and sisters, because our holy Father has done it again.
The twist this time around, however, is a much more inward-looking approach to songwriting; this is Father John Misty at his least Father John Misty, lyrically at least. The instrumentation may be more pared down than the orchestral bombast and drama of Pure Comedy but the lush strings and brass and wonderfully organic guitars and drums still put in an appearance throughout the album, albeit in a more reserved fashion (see Hangout at the Gallows and Disappointing Diamonds… for reference).
Josh’s lyrics, however, remain as sharp and hilarious as ever, while his voice has taken on a new central role amidst the, for want of a better word, ‘stripped down’ instrumental backing. There really isn’t enough time to go over every line but let’s just say ‘Last night I wrote a poem/man, I must have been in the poem zone’ is already a contender for lyric of the year. In short, moving from the grandiosity of firing arrows of satire at the world and everyone in it to examining his own position in that eternally messed-up place has proved to be a smart change of pace for Tillman. Still a voice to worship? Amen.
Individual Rating: 4⁄5
Picks: Please Don’t Die, The Palace, The Songwriter
It began at ‘the store one day,’ before, quickly, they fell into one another’s cynical arms and drove out of Los Angeles forever, positing the end of humankind and the apparently endless proliferation of bland, white boy bands. Next thing we know, Josh Tillman’s getting a fat bill for his debauched stay in a hotel; there seems to be some real uncertainty about the reason to keep living; and the love of his life is begging him via text not to die. Fans, lovers, debutants – like it or lump it, we’ve been sent the sequel we never knew we wanted: I Love You, Honeybear – Part Two.
Musically, it’s everything you want and more: big, mid-70s Elton John-style production, with touches of home demoing (The Palace) and electronics (Date Night). It’s got all the wry-balladry chord progressions; all the electric piano flourishes; all the surprise horn sections. It’s a brighter beast than the hilariously morose Pure Comedy, but only superficially. Lyrically, God’s Favorite Customer is a monster comedown from the pulsing multiple orgasms of …Honeybear. Hinted-at contemplations of suicide; self-deprecating, reverse psychological breakdowns of the songwriter’s craft; and (naturally), a superbly ‘pop’ examination of romantic disappointment (“does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?”)
This is heartache alright – not quite a ‘breakup record,’ but something akin to it. If Josh really is as fucked up as the words imply, he can at least take solace in the boomeranging of his semantic obsession. Pure Comedy might have been poignant, clever and literary – but his heart beats too damn loudly. Get well soon, Josh.
Individual Rating: 4.5⁄5
Picks: Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All, Please Don’t Die, God’s Favorite Customer
At first glance, Father John Misty (Josh Tillman) presents as an artist who eschews all rock music cliches. His starkly self-aware delivery, ostensibly ironic flare and idiosyncratic storytelling all serve to carve out a well-earned niche for the songwriter, who knowingly defies easy categorisation, and deftly rubs his hands together in glee every time he remembers this (I assume). However, it hasn’t taken long for his defences to crumble, and with album number four, he’s fallen victim to one of the most common (and most overlooked) cliches in all of rock music - the ‘stripped-back’ album.
This is far from a bad thing, given that Tillman’s last album, Pure Comedy, was ridiculously grandiose and self-important enough to deter serious consideration of its merits on its own terms. By contrast, the content of God’s Favourite Customer is endowed with a glut of sincerity, which elevates it music far beyond its simple instrumentation and structure. Album highlight Mr. Tillman barely meets the requirements of even a standard verse-chorus-verse approach, gathering for itself a greater arsenal of melodic and lyrical power in the process, while Tillman wryly sings of the benefits of detachment and depravity. Indeed, the same humour which was so sorely lacking from Pure Comedy is present in droves here. It suffuses the rogue anthem of Date Night with a mixture of healthy self-deprecation and societal satire, and imbues Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All with a slender narrative which is equal parts heart-on-sleeve and tongue-in-cheek.
‘Like a pervert on a crowded bus, the glare of love bears down on us’
When Tillman does get serious, however, the music of God’s Favourite Customer hits home all the harder. Please Don’t Die is a warped, vicarious tribute to life which avoids shallow, mawkish or insincere sentiments in favour of an outpouring of vulnerability, which was presumably as difficult to access for the artist as it is accessible to the listener. Elsewhere, The Palace showcases the most redeeming kind of self-awareness, featuring a series of touching personal reflections which remain untainted by self-reflexivity. God’s Favourite Customer is a welcome reminder that beyond the intellectual bric-a-brac of Father John Misty lies a truly talented musician, whose cynicism has not yet worked its way through every fibre of his being. Let’s hope things stay that way.
Individual Rating: 4⁄5
Picks: Mr. Tillman, Please Don’t Die, The Palace, The Songwriter