Mr Tillman's latest solo album is inconsequential, but as engaging as they come
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At this point, you know where you stand with Father John Misty. You may have found his breakthrough sophomore record ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ to be vibrant and grand, or pompous and an unnecessarily spectacle. Last year’s follow-up ‘Pure Comedy’ is either a smart indictment of the Western’s fetishised obsession with entertainment, or a tedious 74-minute record that leads to nowhere. You perceive Father John Misty as the suave uncle that makes Christmas dinners tolerable, or the infant nephew that has completed grade 1 flute that is desperate to perform for you.
Devilishly divisive, Father John Misty has consistently increased his polarising stature with each album. His lyrics are coated with wit, seasoned with smugness. Poetic and lush, a Misty album is an ‘experience’, which is the sort of ambitious title he would gladly boast.
In that sense, ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ is everything you would expect from a Father John Misty album. Yet throughout this record, Misty dilutes everything you once thought of him. ‘Customer’ is his least cutting-edge album since ‘Fear Fun’ with a smaller dose of humour, fewer stand-out tracks and is instrumentally run-of-the-mill.
Father John Misty, formerly Josh Tillman, has less to prove on his fourth record; with the character he has built, you know what you are in for with a FJM record. And so, ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ is a suitably low-stakes affair with an emphasis on personal ballads and calmer sensibilities. There is scarce chatter about politics or religion, two omnipresent themes on ‘Pure Comedy’.
On previous records every song sounded like it was about Tillman – even if he was singing about death or love, it was his mannerisms and strong persona that lurked over the lyrics. It is on this record where Misty breaks the seal and truly gets personal; as a result, this record will be as divisive as the man himself.
At just over thirty-eight minutes, ‘Customer’ is nearly half the length of ‘Pure Comedy’ and is the most tolerable, accessible project Misty has released since ‘Fear Fun’. Ten songs span the album, each doing just enough to create an impression although it will take repeat listens for some to rub off.
With no critical conversations at play this is the least remarkable album Tillman has put out. It is what he does with his chosen topics that makes the record so intriguing. A collection of songs written during ‘heartbreak’, as his press release notes, the songs are personal and presented as such.
‘Hangout At The Gallows’ is as direct of a song Father John Misty would release. Barely a beat and his vocals enter: “Sun is rising, black is turning blue.” His vision of a sunny day is swiftly pierced (“Jesus, man what did you do?”), as if he were a desolate drunk in the bar. The song goes on to question his own identity; the chorus swamps the listener with questions, holding a mirror to the reality in which Tillman resides in.
This aforementioned heartbreak loiters over ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ to the very end. Consequently a commendable portion of the record could be considered as ‘love songs’. Again, it is Tillman’s constant restless quench for divergent perspectives that pushes songs into necessary territory. ‘The Songwriter’ is an excellent emotional reflection on exploiting love for financial success and whether it is worth it. “Would you undress me repeatedly in public to show how very noble and naked you can be?”, he asks, fully aware that his career has consequences that he has had to deal with.
‘Just Dumb Enough To Try’ finds himself on the other end of the spectrum, desperately clinging onto love that he should resist. A pre-chorus escalates with a flurry of strings while a sharp guitar solo cuts deep – it is an instrumental flash of grace. Elsewhere the cocky swagger of ‘Date Night’ is smug but flaunts the charismatic charm that makes Tillman so entertaining. A flurry of “woohoo”‘s and ecstatic one-liners (“I also want to vanquish evil but my mojo is gone”) stack up the track, creating the funniest song of the album (see: “I’m the second coming, Oh, I’m the last to know, I didn’t get invited but I know where to go”).
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To describe the album as funny or light would be a misdirection to say the least. ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ is as morbid as it is patient. Josh Tillman always finds a way of writing lyrics that you relate to far more than you are willing to admit – “Last night I wrote a poem, Man, I must have been in the poem zone”, he muses on ‘The Palace’. An intentionally bad lyric analysing how dramatic we get over the little things? Eye-rollingly congenial.
“I’m out here testing the maxim that all good things have to stop”, Father John Misty proclaims on the title track. Sure, Tillman is self-obsessed but if ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ finally proves one thing, it is that he is self-aware. He may walk around with his all-too-smooth voice and Portlandia-esque beard, but he suffers too. Self-reflective and critical, this is a less interesting record than previous efforts from an external viewpoint but Misty’s edge is as refined as this album. What a confounding person he is.
‘God’s Favorite Customer’ is out now via Bella Union
1. Hangout At The Gallows
2. Mr Tillman
3. Just Dumb Enough To Try
4. Date Night
5. Please Don’t Die
6. The Palace
7. Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All
8. God’s Favorite Customer
9. The Songwriter
10. We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)