Tillman-as-Misty recognizes his precarity throughout the record.
Over the course of three critically-lauded full-lengths, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman developed the ribald persona of Father John Misty, an alter ego cultivated through sardonic wit and acerbic meta-commentary, making him a perfect postmodern oracle. Father John Misty’s neurotic and hedonistic takes on popular culture (2012’s Fear Fun), on constructs of masculinity and marriage (2015’s I Love You, Honeybear) and on the human condition and cultural mores (2017’s Pure Comedy) positioned Tillman as a self-aware (if not also self-satisfied) songwriter. Yet the character appeared as a wannabe shaman and a drunk whose flamboyant evisceration of all around him made him anything but humble.
However, the distance between Father John Misty and Tillman himself diminished over the years, as Tillman’s own Fear Fun-esque hedonism spawned personal and marital problems that culminated in a two-month exile at a hotel. To use Tillman’s words, his life “blew up,” and his latest release, God’s Favorite Customer, reflects on the darker consequences of living like Misty. In contrast to the sprawling epic Pure Comedy, Tillman offers a concise and startlingly honest personal narrative on God’s Favorite Customer, approaching heartache and distress with poignant humility. It’s an album written by a worn-down man who realizes his shortcomings. For the first time, Tillman’s Father John Misty reveals himself to be all too human.
Even though much of the album offers glimpses into his drug-addled hotel stay, Tillman transforms what could’ve initially been seen as another portrayal of Misty as a self-engrossed wild man into a heart-rending breakdown narrative, one that assumes multiple perspectives in order to take stock of the extent of his damage.
For example, lead single “Mr. Tillman” assumes the point of view of a hotel concierge who recites a litany of Tillman’s delusions and transgressions. Some of Tillman’s “outstanding charges” at the hotel include leaving someone else’s “passport in the mini fridge” and leaving “his mattress in the rain [after] sleep[ing] on the balcony.” The concierge goes on to suggest that Tillman exhibits signs of paranoid delusion: “Mr. Tillman, for the seventh time/ We have no knowledge of a film that is being shot outside/ Those aren’t extras in a movie; they’re our clientele.” Expressing his concern, the concierge suggests, “Perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone.” Despite its deadpanned delivery and breezy instrumentation, the song reveals a man at rock bottom.
Tillman-as-Misty recognizes his precarity throughout the record. On album opener “Hangout at the Gallows,” he admits, “I’m treading water as I bleed to death,” and on the album’s titular track, he finds himself yet again “on the straits/ All bug-eyed and babbling/ Out on the corner of 7th and 8th.” And he repeats in the chorus of “The Palace,” “I’m in over my head.” As bleary-eyed vignettes of his breakdown, these songs sound what it’s like to see yourself spiraling out of control.
While these songs establish the bleak tenor of Tillman’s breakdown, a trio of songs that directly address his wife Emma, and even take on her perspective, are by far the most arresting. On the verses of “Just Dumb Enough to Try,” Tillman admits that his ability to perform a variety of roles only acts to conceal his vulnerabilities about intimacy. He beats himself up about it, but yearns desperately in the chorus to keep her in his life as a means to start anew himself. The verses of “Please Don’t Die” detail Tillman’s guilt on hungover mornings when he “could be holding [her],” but the chorus takes on Emma’s tender perspective, in which she, exasperated, begs him to understand her side and expresses her concern that he might be suicidal. Most affecting is “The Songwriter,” a mournful piano ballad that imagines his and Emma’s roles reversed, considering how their lives were deeply affected by his work and his habits.
From these perspectives, it’s clear that God’s Favorite Customer is not only Tillman’s self-reckoning with his off-the-wall behavior, but also is an exercise in humility and empathy, an attempt to understand how his actions risk the things he values most, as well as how others are impacted by him.
Although these songs attest to his bare emotional state, God’s Favorite Customer occasionally entertains some of the characteristic humor of earlier Father John Misty releases. For example, there’s an aside about getting a pet and naming him Jeff on “The Palace,” and he compares love to a “pervert on a bus” and “oil tanker tipped at sea” on “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All.” But even after such moments, he remains engaged with serious questions about relationships, most pointedly inquiring about the realities of intimacy: “Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?”
Just as the record strips away the layers of irony previously ingrained in Misty’s worldview, so too does the record strip away some of his former musical ostentation. Instead of the sonically aggressive arrangements of his former releases, Tillman opts for straightforward pop song structures and simpler instrumentation. A compilation of scaled-back piano-driven songs that reveal honest pictures of struggle, the album suggests that his former glitzy arrangements served as screens to conceal his sentimentality, just as his sarcastic wit and ribald humor hid his vulnerabilities.
Album closer “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” perfectly encapsulates the core message of God’s Favorite Customer. “You’ve been hurt/ And I’ve been hurt,” he admits solemnly, recognizing something about universal grief: “But what do we do now?/ People, we’re only people.” Tillman sheds the postmodern pyrotechnics and recognizes the limits of irony and sarcasm that were the foundation of his previous releases. In doing so, Tillman renders his Father John Misty character entirely human for the first time.