“I didn’t get invited, but I know where to go,” Father John Misty sings on his latest album, God’s Favorite Customer. It’s a line befitting his reputation as the know-it-all party guest who arrives unannounced and overstays his welcome.
Misty, whose real name is Josh Tillman, has an unsettling way of appearing where you don’t expect him, then stomping on the rawest nerve. It’s both coincidental and timely that, following the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, God’s Favorite Customer finds Tillman holed up in a New York City hotel room, wrestling with his own suicidal impulses.
“One more cryptic message, thinking that I might end it,” he sings on “Please Don’t Die.” “Oh God, you must have woken up to me saying that it’s all too much / I’ll take it easy with the morbid stuff.”
The misanthrope from Father John Misty’s first three records is not a person you’d trust to speak tactfully about such a sensitive topic. But here he seems ready to confront his own brokenness and even contemplate redemption, an unexpected turn from an artist who specializes in satire and sardonic humor. There’s still plenty of that on God’s Favorite Customer, but this time it’s balanced with an awareness of the need for grace and forgiveness.
“People, what's the deal?” Tillman sings. “You've been hurt and I've been hurt, but what do we do now?”
As in most of his Father John Misty recordings, it’s hard to tell when Tillman is playing a character and when he’s being sincere. The song “Mr. Tillman” recounts a series of darkly comic ́exchanges with a hotel receptionist as he spirals further into denial and self-destruction. Later, he sings about being trapped inside “the Palace,” his derisive nickname for the hotel where he composed the album in the midst of an unspecified personal breakdown.
“It’s really rooted in something that happened last year that was...well, my life blew up,” Tillman told Uncut magazine in 2017. “I think the music essentially serves the purpose of making the painful and the isolating less painful and less isolating.”
What emerges is some of Tillman’s best and most personal writing, even if it lacks the lyrical pyrotechnics of past efforts. Musically, the album echoes the sound of 2017’s Pure Comedy, mixing piano ballads and moody folk rock in a style reminiscent of early Elton John, Bruce Cockburn, or Townes Van Zandt. But where Pure Comedy was grandiose and expansive, God’s Favorite Customer is intimate to the point of feeling claustrophobic, trapping the listener with Tillman inside the hotel suite.
What emerges is some of Tillman’s best and most personal writing.
Much of the album unfolds as a dialogue with Tillman’s wife, the photographer and filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman, as he tries to explain his self-imposed exile. On “The Songwriter” Tillman examines how a relationship can both inspire and stifle the creative process, imagining himself as the muse and his wife as the musician. Elsewhere, she fears that one of his binges will go too far, leaving his body to be discovered by the “reptilian strangers” who drift through his orbit.
“Oh my God, you’re so naive,” he sings. “You’ll leave this world in a drunken heave / Who’ll make the arrangements, baby, them or me?”
The origin story of Father John Misty involves a mushroom trip that left Tillman stranded in a tree, unburdened of both his clothes and the indie-rock construct of playing drums in the band Fleet Foxes. He quit the band, giving up his role as a functioning cog for the freedom to invent his own persona—an exaggerated version of himself, free to say things that would sound narcissistic or condescending if they weren’t spoken in character.
Father John Misty comes across as a member of the intelligentsia, well-heeled and over-educated, but Tillman’s background reflects none of that. He grew up in a conservative Christian home where he says he and his siblings were forbidden from listening to secular music. He played drums in a worship band and spent a few semesters at Nyack College, a Christian school in New York City, before dropping out and moving to Seattle.
Tillman’s evangelical upbringing provides the inspiration for some of his most biting satire; on Pure Comedy, he mocks believers who put their faith in “risen zombies” and “celestial virgins” and disdains their self-worship disguised as piety. But for a man dispossessed of his religious beliefs, Tillman seems drawn to revisit them often. A 2017 New Yorker profile captured Tillman sneaking into a chapel service at his old school and observing from the back, mixing sarcastic commentary with expressions of genuine reverence. “There is no analogue for this in the secular world,” he said. “The electricity in the air, the pre-service buzz, is a total narcotic to me.”
That search for the next high permeates the Father John Misty oeuvre. Here, at last, he seems to recognize the inadequacy of drugs and decadence to soothe the deepest longings of the soul. On God’s Favorite Customer, the title track begins with him wandering the streets, “all bug-eyed and babbling,” strung out on God knows what. Then the song takes an unexpected turn. The bars close and Tillman finds himself looking to the sky, remembering a time when he and God were on speaking terms. “Don’t you remember me?” he asks. “I was God’s favorite customer / but now I’m in trouble.” Momentarily, at least, Tillman seems willing to surrender his bravado for the comfort of believing in something.
Coming from him, that’s a revelation.