Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Father John Misty God’s Favorite Customer

How does he do it? How the hell does he keep pulling this off? Every time you think Josh Tillman is about to drop the ball, he makes the exact right move. The very things that shouldn’t quite work, that would backfire in lesser hands, are precisely the things that work about Father John Misty — his clever, careful balance of sincerity, performativity, acerbic remove; his savvy approach to media; his ability to direct and/or willfully implode his own narrative. These qualities have made his turn as FJM feel unstoppable thus far. And with his new album, God’s Favorite Customer, he not only has built on what came before, but also inverted it.

He’s done it again, crafted the exact right album at the exact right juncture. But it can’t be reduced to just Tillman’s next astute move in a series of them. God’s Favorite Customer is miles away from the Father John Misty character we first met, the version who appeared unstoppable. Thanks to the religious signifiers or the self-creation of it all, Father John Misty once seemed inhuman, steeped in mythology even when so shrewdly depicting mortal defects. This time, God’s Favorite Customer portrays a man who’s very fallible and has found himself at a crossroads because of it. And that’s resulted in what immediately sounds like a crucial installment in FJM’s quickly growing catalog, an album that functions as a logical conclusion to where he’s been and, perhaps, his way of opening up a completely new chapter.

God’s Favorite Customer is the sort of album that could only come at a certain point in the trajectory, when an artist has already shared some stories and given us a sense of who they are, when they have lived some life and set certain events in motion. You know the tale by now. Tillman had been in the game a long time already before his implausible reincarnation as Father John Misty. After releasing a slew of downtrodden folk albums as J. Tillman and a stint playing drums for Fleet Foxes, a hallucinogenic revelation precipitated Fear Fun, his 2012 debut under the moniker that doubled as a psychedelic origin story for his newly adopted persona.

“Indie-band drummer strikes out on new solo career after drug trip” is not the beginning of many success stories in rock history, but Tillman proved himself to be an outlier — reinventing himself at 30, doling out deeply pretty new music and deeply amusing (or, for some people, infuriating) missives on the culture around him in equal measure. From the start, he was always twisting things, reorienting our expectations. What was persona and what was Josh Tillman, really?

While Fear Fun was a surprisingly engaging re-introduction to Tillman, this tension really flourished on its successor, I Love You, Honeybear. One of the great albums of this decade, it was a self-lacerating and darkly witty collection that broke down male neuroses and the construct of marriage while, eventually, finding some redemption in allowing its protagonist to yield — to find the possibility of contentment that seems to come so much easier for those not cursed with the same affliction of overthinking the “thing you’re supposed to do at a certain age.”

This is was what made FJM unique in the way J. Tillman had not been; now, he was mutating the confessional singer-songwriter tropes, adding in a contemporary brand of self-aware critique with an eye toward dissecting cultural mores. This is what kept him, as he would later lament in “Leaving LA,” from becoming “Another white guy in 2017/ Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.”

Honeybear had one clear digression, and that was the song “Bored In The U.S.A.,” a prescient pre-Trump-era account of a quotidian malaise infecting the country, where Tillman turned that incisive eye outward. When he released Pure Comedy last year, it was initially easy to feel as if he had just extended the thesis into a laborious 75-minute opus on the inherently flawed DNA and cyclical self-destruction of the human race. But Pure Comedy turned out to be a cuttingly beautiful attempt to grapple with the ways in which our culture has gone (and could go) awry. Just when you thought Tillman was gonna fuck it up — just when you thought he would dull his songwriting’s impact by delving too deep into sarcastic chronicler mode, or that he’d lost the plot by going too big — he did it. He pulled it off again.

Through it all, it could be easy to forget that there was an actual person with a real life at the center of all of this. Tillman’s antics — his “You want a pullquote? I’ll give you a pullquote!” approach to interviews, meta-stunts like covering Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift — were part of the fun, but could also occasionally obscure the heart at the core of his music. You could be forgiven for hearing much of his project as a self-satisfied evisceration of everything around him, perceiving him as the drunk and sardonic self-appointed town-crier at the end of civilization.

But God’s Favorite Customer upends that narrative. It tables the Big Ideas entirely in favor of a startlingly honest, personal collection of songs, a collection that brings Father John Misty back down to Earth by way of crash landing. It’s a broken album by a man in one of his most desperate moments, and as a result it is one of the most affecting series of compositions Tillman has given us yet.

You may have noticed the disparity between the past couple months and the press cycle leading up to and surrounding Pure Comedy. It was just a year ago, and yet in some ways feels like a lifetime ago. In comparison to the bleakly jocular, disruptive nature of Pure Comedy’s rollout, Tillman has been laying low. He gave one interview to Uncut last fall, but later denounced it. (The article characterized God’s Favorite Customer as “the real I Love You, Honeybear, but without the cynicism,” a description Tillman harshly/hilariously rejected as “mutilated Dadaist refrigerator poetry.”) Since then, he’s remained mostly silent, unleashing a few tracks and letting them speak for themselves. And in that context — i.e. the lack of context that comes from Tillman only providing hints of a narrative — his new music often has a crushing power.

Way ahead of its release, in September of last year, Tillman previewed God’s Favorite Customer by saying, “The last two records I’d say were squarely concept records with a singular theme. But this one is not that. Just 10 tunes, kind of sprightly BPMs.” After the sprawl of Pure Comedy, that did sound like the exact right move. Imagine an album full of standalone songs of the same punchy and infectious nature as his one-off single “Real Love Baby.” For those who found the pristine and excruciatingly constructed architecture of Pure Comedy too stately, simply too much, it sounded like an antidote.

This, ultimately, is not exactly what God’s Favorite Customer turned out to be. It isn’t an album of Father John Misty rockers or pop songs, but instead may be more somber than Pure Comedy. The difference is that there is a raw, urgent quality to these songs, even in moments of near quiet. It isn’t as considered as its predecessor, instead feeling like these were thoughts and melodies that had to come out, right this moment. They sound wounded, but also occasionally offer pockets of clarity amidst a bleary and fractured period of time. “I’m treading water as I bleed to death,” Tillman sings in its opener, “Hangout At The Gallows.” And fittingly enough, bloodstains are all over these songs.

While its somewhat rapid arrival following a work as expansive and complex as Pure Comedy might’ve led us to believe God’s Favorite Customer would be a lighter listen, perhaps a fun tangent between full statements, it quickly reveals itself to be the complete opposite. This album is both a culmination of and a fallout from all of Tillman’s preceding releases.

It’s the darker side of Fear Fun’s hedonism, when consequences rear their heads and you need to start pulling your life back together. After wrestling with but succumbing to the concepts of love and marriage on Honeybear, God’s Favorite Customer details the trials that arrive when that same love matures, flails. Its more insular concerns feel like the aftermath of Pure Comedy, a man realizing the limits of irony and the repercussions of his work, taking stock of himself after taking stock of the whole world around him.

While Tillman declined to go into explicit detail regarding the circumstances that necessitated God’s Favorite Customer, he did give something of a starting point to Uncut last year:

Most of this next album was written in a six-week period where I was kind of on the straits. I was living in a hotel for two months. It’s kind of about … yeah … misadventure. The words were just pouring out of me. It’s really rooted in something that happened last year that was … well, my life blew up. I think the music essentially serves the purpose of making the painful and the isolating less painful and less isolating. But in short, it’s a heartache album …

I think I instinctually understood that if I blew everything up, I could put it back together better than it was. But look, I don’t want to talk about what happened. Maybe in 30 years from now I will. I know that sounds dramatic. But to talk to me about what this album’s about, I’d have to bring other people into the picture who don’t want to be.

God’s Favorite Customer might not be a concept record in the sense of marrying overarching arguments about the human condition with smaller reflections on personal condition the way Tillman’s last two albums often did. But there’s still a clear arc to it, a story that unfolds as each track approaches similar issues from different angles.

The album’s lead single, “Mr. Tillman,” acted as an overture and intro — chronologically, thematically, and also in redefining the parameters of FJM. We’re used to some smirking self-reflexivity in Tillman’s music, whether he’s writing in character or writing about himself as a character like in “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment.” That isn’t what was happening on “Mr. Tillman.” This time around, you should take his word more or less at face value, and if you do that it isn’t hard to piece together some sense of what’s occurring over the course of the album.

While “Mr. Tillman” could’ve initially seemed like another depiction of Father John Misty as loopy party shaman, the lullaby-turned-nightmarish dreaminess of it lures you in, trapping you in its lilting currents before you realize you’re in the middle of a breakdown narrative. Between that, the references to Jason Isbell and Philly, and the fact that Tillman’s hotel stint took place in the summer of 2016, “Mr. Tillman” seems like it takes place around Tillman’s controversial appearance at the Camden, NJ XPN festival in July of 2016 — right after Trump garnered the Republican nomination. It works as the catalyst for whatever came next.

You don’t ever see the whatever came next. Instead of the misadventures or transgressions usually (and sometimes gleefully) outlined in Tillman’s songs, God’s Favorite Customer occurs in the wake of it all. Most of it takes place in a sort of liminal space, trapped between the whatever moment in which Tillman’s life blew up and, theoretically and hopefully, the moment when he finds his way back. As a result, many of the songs on God’s Favorite Customer are absolutely leveling, whether they’re cataloging the impossible heaviness of maintaining a relationship and growing older alongside one another, or whether they’re offering glimpses into Tillman’s time in exile.

Several of the songs are rooted in the period in which Tillman was living in that hotel, and they can be strikingly naked. In the sparse piano ballad “The Palace,” Tillman paints himself as an old-time writer recluse, avoiding leaving his sanctum but acquiring a bag of speed and manuscript edits left at the front desk by a Ph.D student. That track is also surprising in its writing, diverting from our expectations of Tillman’s melodic sensibility — where you expect a plaintive chorus to bloom, he takes a defeated turn and sings, “I’m in over my head,” in a frail rasp that sounds more akin to Thom Yorke solo material than FJM.

A recurring scene from that era kicks off the album’s title track. “Another night on the straits/ All bug-eyed and babbling/ Out on the corner of 7th and A,” he begins, before continuing, “‘I’m in the business of living’/ Yeah, that’s something I’d say.” That does sound like something Tillman would say; it’s also the kind of thing a creative type says in order to justify the wreckage they might create around themselves for the sake of inspiration, for the sake of art. But the way he says it here is different, like he’s recognizing that, and all the bullshit that came before, and what it reaped.

Any hint of that old wild-man FJM or the anxious prophet of past albums is obliterated in moments like that, and in the songs that convey pure heartache and yearning elsewhere. There’s a depletion, a numbness in “God’s Favorite Customer.” It’s a listless and ragged tale that happens in response to the more emotional songs, like “Just Dumb Enough To Try,” “Please Don’t Die,” and “The Songwriter,” all of which certainly play as if addressed to Tillman’s wife Emma, the woman who’s been inextricable from so much of his work as Father John Misty.

And on an album full of gut-punch lyrics and melodies, those songs truly hit hard. On “Just Dumb Enough To Try,” Tillman beats himself up for maintaining the belief that he’s going to “get out with my skin and start my life again,” that the escape-as-rebirth he pulled off once before could be replicable. On “Please Don’t Die,” he sings of “pointless benders with reptilian strangers” and a partner waking up to texts saying, “It’s all too much.” The chorus could be interpreted a few ways: a person angered and begging a partner to not let themselves drift further out to sea, or a more universal sentiment, the lingering dread of being in a relationship with the ever-present possibility of losing the other person permanently.

“The Songwriter” might be the most brutal of the bunch: It’s difficult to hear that as anything but Tillman speaking directly to his wife, wondering if their roles had been reversed, and taking accountability for how their lives and his work have intersected. It might be the most fragile and open moment in Tillman’s entire discography, and it sounds like an end point to the spiral of God’s Favorite Customer. “Goodbye little songbird, now you’re free,” he promises.

If God’s Favorite Customer offers any spark of redemption like FJM’s preceding albums, it’s a matter-of-fact kind of redemption. “Last night I texted your iPhone/ And said ‘I think I’m ready to come home,'” Tillman sings in “The Palace.” And there’s a way in which you can read the title track as a dusty sunrise, acknowledging all the misspent time but looking to stop it. Tillman asks for an angel during the chorus, and he’s answered by Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering, who sounds exactly like an angel in that moment. Her voice is clear, pure, floating above Tillman’s bedraggled pleas; as the album reaches its conclusion, it sounds like a flicker of salvation.

When all these little vignettes sit alongside one another, they come across like transmissions from a person who is trying to hold on to a life he’s built, trying to fix what fell apart. It is an album that, accordingly, comes with a whole lot of gravity, and little of the humor Tillman spiked his older music with, even the State Of The World proclamations of Pure Comedy. There’s an aside about getting a pet in “The Palace,” answered by the desolation of that chorus. In “Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All,” Tillman compares love to such romantic iconography as a pervert on the bus and a carcass rotting in the heat; it’s one of the poppier songs here, but it also asks one of the album’s most pointed questions about relationships when Tillman throws his hands up and sings, “Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?”

Father John Misty, that was indeed a great story. But God’s Favorite Customer offers something different. And once more, it shouldn’t have worked, exactly. If Tillman’s ability to operate on two levels at every second was what initially made FJM special, shouldn’t this one negate that? All of Tillman’s recent albums have trafficked in difficult, real topics, but God’s Favorite Customer travels through places where his typical punchlines or linguistic trickery don’t feel like appropriate tools anymore. He released Pure Comedy just over a year ago and then, as the pick-me-up chaser, releases an album about lives on the brink of collapse.

Given the nature of the album, it feels almost crass to point out that Tillman pulled it off again. But he did, in making another stunning Father John Misty album. But he did something else, too. On God’s Favorite Customer, you could read a meta, artistic meaning into it, that this is Tillman interrogating that story about Father John Misty, that story of Emma and Josh as told through his own work on I Love You, Honeybear. But then you’re really still in the zone of reflexivity, of the separations between FJM and his narrative and Tillman and his actual life. And in the end, the feeling that lingers with you is that Tillman left all the artifice behind, perhaps for good. You don’t have to be the greatest story ever told. Being able to live with yourself, and be good to the people around you, and keep your life afloat — those things are hard enough as is.

The border between Father John Misty and Josh Tillman had always been slippery, then porous, and eventually extinguished — it’s something he himself perpetuated and pushed back against at various points in his career. But on God’s Favorite Customer, it feels like it’s been rearranged forever: We might not have all the straight biographical details, but we’re getting unadulterated Josh Tillman puzzling through the mess of things, a mess partially yielded by the FJM project and its shenanigans.

There used to be a lot of noise hiding the person at the center of this. With God’s Favorite Customer, there’s more than a sense that Josh Tillman has written his barest album as Father John Misty. It makes you go back through his other work too, and sift through all the flourishes of the past, and for the first time you can brush aside all the layers and winks and pivots. And the only story you hear is of another person, somehow having created this brand new life for himself and then fighting to keep it after dropping the ball, after letting it shatter. What you hear is Josh Tillman being a human.

God’s Favorite Customer is out 6/1 on Sub Pop/Bella Union.