Father John Misty - God's Favorite Customer

by Kyle Kersey Rating:7 Release Date:2018-06-01
Father John Misty - God's Favorite Customer
Father John Misty - God's Favorite Customer

In preparation for God’s Favorite Customer (because I’m the kind of pretentious music blogging asshole who needs to “prepare” for a new album as opposed to simply listen to it), I went back and listened to some of Josh Tillman’s early work. Before his stint as a percussionist in Fleet Foxes (contributing to their 2011 chamber folk masterpiece Helplessness Blues) and the subsequent discovery of his idiosyncratic persona, Father John Misty, Tillman was spinning bleak tales of the lost and downtrodden wielding only an acoustic guitar and his admittedly soothing voice. On albums with such joyous titles as Cancer And Delirium, his name is shortened to simply J. Tillman, a name that would fit snug in the dreary Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. In stark contrast to the care-free narrative voice of Father John Misty, his work as J. Tillman is some of the most unapologetically doom and gloom bare-bones folk I’ve ever heard.

This brings us to modern day: Tillman wrote God’s Favorite Customer over the course of two months isolated in a hotel room, pouring his soul out through newly written lyrics. He’s remained cryptic as to the impetus for such a creative torrent, though we know from recent interviews that he underwent a personal crisis of sorts within the last year. The result is an album that sounds less like the Father John Misty most of us have come to know and love and more like Josh, the man who exists somewhere between his two personas. Swapping existential wit for earnest introspection, this is Josh Tillman at his most melancholy. What results will divide listeners into two categories: those who are bored and those who are compelled.

There’s a pretty reputable team behind the production and performance of God’s Favorite Customer.  UK drone artist Haxan Cloak contributed a string part to the opening track, "Hangout at the Gallows",  though as Tillman explains in the liner notes, he did so “without using strings. Somehow I think it was a guitar, you can do that kind of thing now.” Jonathan Wilson, the co-producer of Tillman’s first three albums under the Misty moniker, returns as an additional producer and lends a few performances to the album, as does newly minted Sub Pop signee Weyes Blood. Even Mark Ronson joins in on the fun, recording the bass part for “Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All.” Perhaps the most noteworthy addition though is Johnathan Rado, who represents one half of the progressive pop duo Foxygen. Joining Tillman on the production end of the record, Rado also appears on more than half of the album’s ten tracks, contributing his skills as a performer on bass, guitar, piano, and assorted synths. The resulting product is an album that isn’t as deeply or spaciously produced as Pure Comedy, but rather sounds more like an early 70s Bob Dylan project a la New Morning. In fact, I see quite a few aesthetic similarities to New Morning, down to the parallels in their profile-driven album artwork (though Tillman’s take has more of a flair for the dramatic).

“Hangout at the Gallows” poses the question: “what’s your reason for living?” The rest of the album attempts to answer that, be it love, thrill, or necessity. The song’s chorus of “Whose bright idea was it to sharpen the knives? / Just 20 minutes before the boat capsized / If you want an answer it’s anybody’s guess / I’m treading water as I bleed to death” sets a melancholic tone, though he promises to “take it easy on the morbid stuff” later on “Please Don’t Die”, an aching ballad that would have fit right in on his lovesick 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear. In an interview with Uncut, he even went so far as to describe the album as “the real I Love You, Honeybear but without the cynicism.”

The stretch of lonely, tender piano ballads all but confirms this description, from his yearning tussle with the almighty on the album’s title track to the solitary elegy, “The Palace”, a reflection upon his forlorn two-month stay at the hotel in which all these songs were written. “Mr. Tillman” is about as close as he gets to the traditional Father John Misty persona, featuring whimsical lyrics poking fun at his own eccentric behavior from the perspective of a bemused hotel receptionist. Floating over spacious, dreamlike folk harmonies and a heavenly chorus, it’s as though he’s inviting us to explore these delusions with him. Meanwhile, “Date Night” feels like a callback to the amusing ramblings of “I’m Writing a Novel” off his Misty debut, Fear Fun. “Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All” stands as the most energetic cut on the album, though it’s more of a glorified refrain than a fully formed song.

Perhaps where I fall off the bandwagon a bit with God’s Favorite Customer is the lack of development on the musical side of the spectrum. After all, you hear one piano ballad, you’ve kind of heard them all from a sonic standpoint. Contrast this with his most recent work, Pure Comedy, and it feels like a step back in terms of song structure and musical exploration. Pure Comedy was so progressive and conceptual that a return to short vignettes and ballads was initially a tough pill to swallow. Perhaps it’s also that Pure Comedy hit me with such immediacy; I was floored by the sweeping seven-minute title track, a single both emotionally resonant and darkly satirical, executed like an epic. Nothing on God’s Favorite Customer feels as thoroughly developed or explored.

When it is all said and done, I think God’s Favorite Customer is going to divide listeners into those who are bored and those who are compelled. Upon first listen, I was squarely in the first camp, perturbed by the homogenous repetition of piano balladry. However, digging deeper into the lyrics and given the proper context, I’ve switched sides. Sure, God’s Favorite Customer isn’t Josh Tillman’s greatest musical achievement: there are times where the album’s pacing stagnates, even at just forty minutes in length, and the fact that it’s not a bonafide concept album like his previous two releases will probably disappoint some of his die-hard fans. But Tillman’s willingness to express personal anguish with such vulnerability is a powerful artistic statement. It’s his most introspective album since his transformation into Father John Misty, and while the musical element of the album would stand to benefit from a bit more diversity, God’s Favorite Customer stands as a compelling piece of storytelling from one of the best storytellers in the industry today.

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars