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Father John Misty - God’s Favorite Customer Music Album Reviews

Father John Misty - God’s Favorite Customer Music Album Reviews

Josh Tillman is still self-absorbed. But his fourth full-length as Father John Misty exhibits a new sense of empathy and vulnerability while losing none of his wit.

The magnificent ego of Father John Misty makes his music seem really important. The music is not really that important, of course, but when you hear that smooth and gentle soft-rock with his olden croon centered so perfectly on every pitch, it seems like it is, in the way that narcissists or the canon of classic rock seem important. This outsized persona bursting forth from singer-songwriter Josh Tillman is full of self-mythology descended straight from Bob Dylan, dripping with a painted-on significance: His greatest passion is his thoughts. The autofiction of his songwriting imparts its own patina of truth, something that seems unassailable if you subscribe to the man, the voice, the facial hair. He strolls through his own songs like a melancholy king finding every opportunity to catch his reflection.

His ego may keep some folks at arm’s length, but it is also precisely what makes his music fascinating. If the maxim is “write what you know,” then it is certain that Tillman knows himself a little too well. All this helps build a kind of lore around him, the Misty mythos: He is the former drummer for the sylvan Fleet Foxes, the rogue at house parties, the online satirist, the ham at live shows, the scamp who writes generic pop songs as a lark or as a hired gun, the ingester of mushrooms, the beefer with Ryan Adams, and of course the husband to his wife, Emma, to whom his cosmic romance was detailed with great overture on his 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear. This is only part of the vast Father John Misty universe Tillman has created, with its many footnotes and appendices. His fourth album, God’s Favorite Customer, is Tillman trying to destroy it all.

The record is comparatively small and vulnerable, as hook-filled as it is heartrending, the kind of back-to-basics turn that almost seems a bit too calculated after the density of last year’s Pure Comedy. Written over a period of two emotionally fraught months holed up in a New York hotel room, Tillman sounds more wise than clever. Instead of the romantic bombast of I Love You, Honeybear, now it’s love songs without ornaments, written from the perspective of someone looking up at the world, not down on it. Finally, the real lessons of his psychedelic trips of the past are taking hold: Father John Misty wants to destroy his ego, get out of his head, and be here for someone else.

Which is not easily done. Tillman sometimes handles naked sentiment as if holding a screaming infant, but witnessing his arduous journey from a louche cynic to a man stripped absolutely bare makes for rapt listening. It’s his own modern-day Orpheus myth, where hell is a lonely penthouse strewn with empty bottles and unremembered evenings. Lead single “Mr. Tillman” imagines as much, a genuinely hilarious back-and-forth between a blacked-out Tillman and an incredibly patient hotel concierge. Still in the darkness of the hotel, the bathrobed piano ballad “Palace” contains a line delivered with such melodrama that it still makes me laugh dozens of times in: “Last night I wrote a poem/Man, I must’ve been in the poem zone.”

Outside of his hotel room, the snide commentary slowly melts away. Part of Tillman’s humble quest is guided by the record’s charmingly lysergic California studio sound. Sometimes there’s a flourish of sax or glockenspiel, sometimes they swell into a big glam-pop sound, and sometimes they feature Mark Ronson playing bass. But mostly, Tillman uses simple arrangements and a muted drum kit sound which could only be described as “tasteful,” keeping things to a lean and tuneful 38 minutes. It’s a risky move because, now more than ever, the songs rely heavily on Tillman’s voice and narrative to see them through.

Present within these songs are grace and generosity—two words I could not imagine summoning to describe Father John Misty’s music a year ago. It knocks you off balance. He has the ear of Jeff Lynne and the vowels of Elton John as he casts his words into the sky and lets them hang there to be marveled at, plainspoken and myth-free. There are no Misty prerequisites required in order to be shot through the heart with the ballads of “Please Don’t Die” and closer “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That).” They are lonesome songs, honest because of their nature not because of their pretext.

Tillman used to write what he knew; now it’s as though he’s writing what he’s just learned, racing to capture a newborn emotion before it curdles into self-conscious drek. And while God’s Favorite Customer tips slightly into self-pity at times, it’s a passing feeling on an album that peaks behind the many cynical shields of Josh Tillman. Through the ringer and reborn on the other side, the world he sketches seems brighter now, bigger, and more sensitive to the touch. It brings his songs forward out of the warrens of his head and into the scared space between listener and writer. He’s still writing about himself, but now his songs are interrogations, apologies, and discoveries: On the gorgeous and spacious track called “The Songwriter,” he sings slowly to his wife Emma, something incorrigibly selfish and selfless at the same time:

What would it sound like if you were the songwriter
And you made your living off of me?
Would you detail your near constant consternation
With the way my very presence makes your muses up and flee?

That is the crux of Father John Misty, this tension, between believing in himself and believing in others. God’s Favorite Customer is ultimately about trust, what you can afford to lose to be fully there for someone else—and just how difficult and terrifying that can be. You wonder, though, whether or not this too will all be folded into part of the Misty universe. The Hotel Album. The One Where He Got Real. Can you really trust someone like this? Retreating to a hotel room to write an album assisted by a cocktail of drugs and heartbreak is not exactly an original rock’n’roll proposition. But even that cliché seems to be part of his desire to forego a too-clever concept. Instead, he basks in something more universal, trying to seek that one marble of truth about love we all process as individuals but possess as a collective. As Brian Wilson once advised: “Hang on to your ego... but I know that you’re going to lose the fight.” It’s a joy to watch Tillman get in the ring for a bit.

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