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Album Review: Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer

Father John Misty is a name that seems to come with a big caveat. Anytime the name is printed, the writer ensures the reader that this is just a persona, a character. The man who makes the music is Josh Tillman, and yes he is Father John Misty, but at the same time it’s all an act. This is what gets stressed to you nearly every single time you read anything about him. And people seem to get fed up with him very easily, so much so that there are plenty of people out there who make it known that they will never listen to a Father John Misty album because they can’t stand the persona (which is stupid). But aside from the fact that the man making the music isn’t literally named Father John Misty, the line between character and real life person is frankly nonexistent. You can squint and try to see the difference, but at the end of the day there never really was a character. And just because Josh Tillman has given great pull-quotes (and even referenced giving pull-quotes in a song), people seem to think he’s enacting some performance art where he’s masterfully critiquing the music industry. But at the end of the day, the Father John Misty name change was just that: a name change. It was an attempt to reroute Josh Tillman’s solo career, and it worked. But it also opened the door for mass-interpretation. Time and time again, Tillman has been keen to speak his mind, or make jokes, but the fact that people take this all as part of a persona is ludicrous. Father John Misty is Josh Tillman is just a dude who has opinions and makes music. On his last album, it was summed up rather succinctly in the 13-minute bare-bones “Leaving LA” with the lines: “at some point you just can’t control / what people use your fake name for.” People project whatever they want onto the Father John Misty mask and want to use that projection to make inferences or critiques on his music. But it’s all gotten way out of control to the point that now the talking point about his new album, God’s Favorite Customer, is that it’s Tillman stripping the FJM persona and getting real and raw. Which brings us to this review. 

There’s already a kind of legend behind the making of and intention behind God’s Favorite Customer, except we don’t get the full picture. After the massive push of publicity behind last year’s Pure Comedy, Tillman opted to basically say very little about the new album. Instead, he gave one interview months and months ago before the album was even officially announced where he set the scene. Essentially, he claims that his “life blew up” as he was exiled to living in a hotel room for two months. Whether or not this was a self-imposed exile is unclear. But what it amounts to is the start of the writing process for this LP. So throughout the 10 tracks here, you can picture him stuck in a hotel room, ruminating on his faults and anxieties. And that alone does indeed make for a compelling picture. But, unfortunately more often than not the songs just don’t seem to land as hard as they should. 

Since the album’s release the positive reviews have rolled in wherein the album is being sold to you from the reviewer that this is Josh Tillman grappling with his persona and trying to once again tear down himself to produce personal material. The same was being said when I Love You, Honeybear came out. That album was an evolution in the sound that Tillman laid down on Fear Fun, but it was much more about his personal life as of late. Essentially, that was his love album where he chronicled his recent coupling with now wife Emma Tillman and how that love made him reevaluate his life. It was a beautiful record with a compelling story at its center, but it also was simply a better-produced LP. The arrangements were more ambitious, the melodies much more inviting. And you could tell that Tillman was becoming a more assured songwriter, opening himself up to a wide range of listeners. But then came the “character” takedowns, criticisms, and analyzations and it seemed the music started taking a backseat. So much so that when he announced Pure Comedy, a concept album about human existence and the meaning of life, people rolled their eyes, believing his persona was coming unhinged. 

But what so many failed to understand was that Pure Comedy was just a personal album as I Love You, Honeybear. Sure, it took on a much grander scope, but it was the sound of Tillman trying to make meaning for himself. He projected his negative outlook on the nature of humanity and tried to find where he fit into it. But the misreading of this album as some sort of majestic critique from Father John Misty the character is what likely led to Tillman attempting to scale things back with God’s Favorite Customer. Pure Comedy wasn’t without its faults, don’t get me wrong. It is too long, and a little too sparse and bleak, but it’s total indulgence is what ended up making me really come to love it. God’s Favorite Customer, on the other hand, is almost being thought of as a return-to-form, or a sequel to I Love You, Honeybear, which in many ways is true. If Honeybear was the sound of Tillman falling in love, Customer is the sound of Tillman falling apart. And not just that, but also the theme of his love starting to crumble is present throughout much of the LP.

“Please Don’t Die,” and “The Songwriter” tackle his relationship head-on with Tillman opting to shift perspectives for the first time. For in these two songs, he writes about Emma’s viewpoint. “Please Don’t Die” is a plea from her to him, to, well I think the title says it all. Its lyrics have a layering of meaning, with one side being about how him feeling that his depression is causing concern for his wife, and the other being more from his perspective where he’s desperately hoping she stays around forever because he has no one else. It’s a heavy, heart wrenching love song filtered through Tillman’s anxiously messy brain, and it works because of that. “The Songwriter,” on the other hand is Tillman taking himself to task asking Emma “what would it sound like if you were the songwriter / and you made your living off of me?” It’s a self-critique, and a meta-textual commentary on his past work, but at its heart it’s still trying to be a love song. It’s just a Father John Misty love song.

And that idea of the Father John Misty love song rears its head earlier in the album with “Just Dumb Enough To Try.” On that song we get Tillman proclaiming he may be able to write a good song, but writing a good love song is a different kind of thing because at the end of the day he knows very little about love. But he sings “I’m just dumb enough to try / to keep you in my life / for a little white longer.” It’s a nice sentiment, and the lyrics throughout the verses are really refined as well. Instrumentally it’s a little stripped back, with arrangements that feel more fleshed out than those on Pure Comedy, but still less lush than those on Honeybear. In that middle ground Tillman shines brightest as the music keeps you engaged while his songwriting is clear and to the point. “Please Don’t Die” exemplifies this as well with just enough in the way of instruments that create this fuller sound while also being easy to latch onto.

“The Songwriter” is more in-line with another album highlight “The Palace,” where we do get the very stripped down Tillman, focusing on three primary points: piano, voice, and lyrics. And he absolutely sells this sound, with his vocals being as emotive as ever. I especially love the way his voice carries on “But I don’t wanna leave the palace / let’s pay someone to move in here and fix this” and “I’m in over my head.” It’s moments like these where Tillman’s voice sounds pained and desperate that the idea of what this record is supposed to be gets fully formed. You can begin to hear the dire situation he vaguely described in that months-ago interview, and it makes the rest of the record just pale in comparison. 

The bulk of the rest of these songs keep things loose with rugged acoustic guitar jamming and more pounding drums. Tracks like “Mr. Tillman” and “Date Night” have some interesting lyrical ideas with the former being the biggest another big thematic tie-in to the hotel setting. But ultimately these songs just leave me feeling a bit empty. It’s nice to have the record change up the tempo and all, but I still often find myself not really connecting to the songs. They almost (almost) sound like they were made to be “indie rock singles” that lack a full commitment to a unique sound. “Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All” kind of suffers the same fate too. It is quite a bit punchier instrumentally with blasts of screeching guitar, powerful drum fills, and well-placed horns, but it still doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Again, some of the ideas on here are good with Tillman singing “does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?” But it never fully comes together as a captivating song with biting, personal lyrics and a more fleshed-out identity.

But perhaps the greatest misfire here is the closer “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” which is as vague and lifeless as its title. The lyrics here never scratch the surface of what it’s trying to say, instead it keeps you at arms-length while trying to capture the sound of a big finale. But its lack of preciseness results in a muddled sound that ends the record on a faceplant. Also, thematically it just kind of sounds like a reworking of the Pure Comedy closer “In Twenty Years Or So,” but that one worked because of its specificity and how it fit into all the preceding tracks. 

Ultimately, despite God’s Favorite Customer having some stellar moments, the end-result is a record that seems confused with what it’s trying to be. But perhaps that is not entirely Josh Tillman’s fault. After all, leading up to the album, he said that these were just kinda 10 tracks put together. Yes, there is somewhat of a thematic through-line, but its being grossly oversold as something that it isn’t. Which has been happening to Father John Misty for years now. The projection by critics of Misty being a wild, outspoken persona has plagued his discography far too often. And it’s happening yet again with the release of this album. This is not the sound of Josh Tillman shedding his character and getting real, writing some sort of dark, personal masterful achievement. Instead it is Josh Tillman reconciling with himself (as he has done on every album before this one) and presenting some new songs. We do still have an overarching theme, but it’s toned down a little bit from the last two releases, making it more palatable to people who just couldn’t set aside this idea of “the Father John Misty character.”

Leading up to its release, Tillman didn’t really do any press for God’s Favorite Customer,  allowing instead for the album to speak for itself. He hinted that it was a difficult album to make because of the surrounding circumstances of his life, and this is likely why he didn’t want to go on and on about it. He opted instead, to let people project their own ideas on what is, which has gotten out of control (to a point). I’m not suggesting that people out there are claiming that this is some masterpiece of the year, but it is definitely being built up from critics, who have incidentally twisted the conversation about it into something it doesn’t need to be. Setting all that aside, God’s Favorite Customer is an okay album, but it isn’t something I feel Tillman hasn’t done better before. There are glimmers of greatness scattered, but as a whole piece of work it sounds a little lost. Instrumentally, there are too many songs that just don’t sound passionate or interesting, and there even patches where the lyrics come across as too obscured. Tillman has painted a lot of the sounds of this album in broader strokes, and it for that reason it falters in a number of places, failing to completely enrapture me. Yet despite my feelings on it, feel however you want to about it, just be cautious when it comes to how you approach it. Let’s drop the idea of characters or personas and instead just all agree to approach the album as yet another album of music from Josh Tillman and leave it at that.

3 out of 5.

 

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