Father John Misty God’s Favorite Customer

[Sub Pop; 2018]

Styles: folk rock, country rock, indie rock
Others: John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, John Prine

The avenue is littered with reptilian strangers, speed-hocking Ph.Ds, and exclusive dudes sporting Dries clothing. Sometimes they can be seen with a tall, bearded troubadour engaging in some kind of shady shit, but if he’s not around, you might find them at the front desk of his hotel room, dubbed “The Palace” by his departed lover. They’re part of Father John Misty’s entourage, and they’re as disgusting as he is. We can glean nearly as much about the alter ego of Josh Tillman from the company he keeps as we can from observing the man himself. The sordid motley crew of hangers on and sycophants that comprise Misty’s posse are strong, and accurate, indicators of his dubious ways of life.

So maybe that’s why it was so hard to get a read on him on last year’s Pure Comedy: on that album, he played the perturbed sociologist, taking swipes at contemporary American society from what often felt like an alien, outsider vantage point. While Comedy was the singer’s — as he himself describes it, deeply polarizing — foray into more overt social criticism following the smarmy ironic charm of his championed breakout album I Love You, Honeybear, God’s Favorite Customer finds Father John at an impasse. He’s still the hedonist that appeared on the less sentimental moments of Honeybear, but, now wizened from social discord and failed romances, Misty is reckoning with the pleasure principled character that had appeared on Honeybear and his debut Fear Fun.

Father John has always been at his most entertaining as a sleazy jerkass brimming with confidence and hauteur. That side of him comes out on the 1960s folk rock number “Date Night,” which boasts one of the more clever lines on the album: “I’m the second coming/ Oh, I’m the last to know/ I didn’t get invited, but I know where to go.” It also shines through on “Mr. Tillman” as a nebbish hotel clerk with off-the-charts emotional labor skills walks him through his exorbitant bill. But the Father isn’t thrown by the charges for leaving his mattress out in the rain, nor by the plea that he not drink unaccompanied anymore, because he’s “on a cloud above an island in [his] mind.” While Father John is still in some ways the loutish asshole his fans love to roll their eyes at, on Customer, he’s grown more adept at the act of subtle self-deprecation.

Misty is the loathsome, and at times strangely enviable, creation of the more humble folk singer Josh Tillman. His oft-repeated origin story explains that the character Father John Misty was born of an epiphanic psilocybin trip following a depressive period of creative exhaustion. Although ridiculously named and comparatively unhinged, the Misty character was never a device meant to obscure or overtake Tillman as a songwriter. Rather, he’s an extension of Tillman, not in an Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton prankster way, but in a way that’s aware there’s always an element of performative exaggeration and self-aggrandizement in “confessional” songwriting, no matter how personal or ostensibly autobiographical the lyrics.

And this is the tension Tillman explores on Favorite Customer; the stripped-down honesty of the album’s Country Western-informed warmth is at odds with its distant subject, a man with a penchant for lysergics and dreams of societal decay. Misty’s sinful ways afforded him some amazing highs in the past, but the chickens are coming home to roost now. “One more wasted morning/ When I could be holding you,” he laments on “Please Don’t Die.” He sounds positively hungover and inconsolably wistful on those lines. And on the track “God’s Favorite Customer,” he beseeches the Big Man to lend him an ear after an unsatisfying last call at 5 AM. Atonement is the name of the game on this record, and when paired with Tillman’s gorgeous baritone and humble melodies, the self-reflective end result is often heartening. Not every track here captures this doleful magic (“The Songwriter” and closer “We’re Only People” occasionally get lost in their own sorrow), but it’s commendable all the same that Tillman is still interested in taking his persona to new places four albums in, even if the payoff isn’t always there.

On Customer, there’s a triptych of Fathers John Misty: the profligate Misty, the passionate Misty, and the penitent Misty. Each has its own individual merit and charm, but the true satisfaction lies in hearing God’s Favorite Customer move through them in a narrative that can be argued as a character arc. Some of the changes are sweeping and obvious, but much of Misty’s/Tillman’s growth is quieter. J. Tillman may have sworn off the reckless grandeur of I Love You, Honeybear (still his best album to date), but the draw of Customer is its small victories and modest shifts in character.

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