Father John Misty is a satirical public performance by Josh Tillman both onstage and off. But on his latest album God’s Favorite Customer, the artist is more Josh Tillman than he has ever let Father John Misty be. At least that’s what he wants us to believe.
He is vague about the circumstances that surrounded the album’s creation. He told Uncut he wrote it over six weeks in 2016 when his life “blew up” and he lived in a hotel for two months. He also said the album was about “misadventure.” But he didn’t say much more than that.
Piano leads most of the 10 songs on God’s Favorite Customer which clocks in at 38 minutes. This is a nearly 180-degree pivot from his sprawling, splendorous, 75-minute-long previous album, last year’s Pure Comedy. On God’s Favorite Customer, he is no longer a barefooted celestial wanderer who bestows witty take-downs of the human condition. He is flesh, blood, and flawed. He takes a serious look at truths that are more personal and emotional than universal. God’s Favorite Customer is a critique of nothing and no one other than himself.
A dreary fog hangs over God’s Favorite Customer. “If you want an answer, it’s anybody’s guess. I’m treading water as I bleed to death,” he sings on downtrodden piano-rock opener “Hangout at the Gallows”. “Mr. Tillman” could recount one of his days at the hotel. A clerk greets him and provides him with information about his account during check-in. The song takes a dark turn; its dreaminess is more like post-surgery loopiness. “Is there someone we can call? Perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone,” the clerk advises him. “I’m feeling good. Damn, I’m feeling so fine. I’m
living on a cloud of an island in my mind,” Mr. Tillman responds before assuring the clerk: “Don’t be alarmed. This is just my vibe.” Tillman’s in denial here, but on the next song “Just Dumb Enough to Try”, he admits: “It ain’t enough to think I’m gonna get out with my skin and start my life again.” And on “Please Don’t Die”, he sings: “One more cryptic message, thinking that I might end it.” He sounds like he’s thinking about closing the book on Father John Misty.
Self-destructive behaviour often impacts other people. One of these people he speaks to on God’s Favourite Customer could be his wife Emma Elizabeth Tillman. The album is about his descent into “pointless benders with reptilian strangers,” as he sings on “Please Don’t Die”, but the album’s also about rebuilding and maintaining relationships. On “The Songwriter”, he imagines her and himself in each other’s place. The song is not only an exercise in empathy, it's an apology and request for forgiveness too. “Goodbye, little songbird. Now you’re free.” Again, he hints Father John Misty is coming to his end.
Skepticism about how real Josh Tillman is on God’s Favorite Customer could be a testament to how well he has curated the Father John Misty persona. And he still leaves room for myth- making by letting listeners speculate about what happened to him in 2016. With someone as inventive as Tillman, it’s difficult to buy that anything he does is as real as he wants us to believe it is.
review by Leslie Chu