This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Singer/Songwriter, Chamber Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Hangout at the Gallows,” “Date Night,” “Please Don’t Die,” “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” “God’s Favorite Customer”
At what point does our cultural spectacle collapse? Each passing day is more absurd than the last as we sink deeper and deeper into the toxic pop culture we’ve built. How are we meant to cope with a seemingly fracturing reality? One option is the shroud of irony. A safety blanket to shield oneself with a detached humorous spin on the world. But that option, as Joshua Tillman has found, has its breaking point too. For Tillman, it came in the Bowery Hotel, the setting for his fourth LP as Father John Misty.
Born out of his first psychedelic trip, Father John Misty is Tillman’s artistic renaissance, a comically over-the-top departure from the humble, unheralded folk music he’d been writing under his birth name. The first three records under the Misty moniker follow Tillman’s inner mental trajectory through an ironic lens: FEAR FUN, a psychedelic folk origin story, I LOVE YOU, HONEYBEAR, a theatrical masterpiece that Tillman describes as a concept album about himself, and PURE COMEDY, a sprawling critique of humanity. Each record is more ambitious than the last, but as Misty climbed to new heights, Tillman began to sink. Tillman had something of a depression-fueled break from reality in which he sequestered himself to the Bowery Hotel for two months. The intoxicated exile served as a catalyst for the intense creative output in which he wrote most of this new record, GOD’S FAVORITE CUSTOMER.
From the jump, it’s apparent that this album is the dark sequel to HONEYBEAR. The arrangements on “Hangout at the Gallows” and “Mr. Tillman” are lush and colorful pastiches of his 2015 record and their lyrical themes are very personal. Both tracks set Tillman on death’s door, as he sings about treading water while bleeding to death on the former and is warned not to drink alone on the latter. “Mr. Tillman” namechecks Jason Isbell, who confirmed that he ran into Tillman at the Bowery and said, “If you had seen him that day, you would’ve been worried about him too.”
Just about every track on the record paints a positively worrisome picture of Tillman’s physical and mental state. Even on the more raucous cuts like “Date Night,” where the classic sleazy ladies’ man side of Father John Misty rears its head, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Tillman’s mental strength has withered away. It’s especially evident when it transitions into “Please Don’t Die,” Misty’s most heartbreaking song to date. Sung mostly from his wife’s perspective, Tillman’s voice is on the verge of cracking as he belts the chorus, “You’re all that I have / So please don’t die / Wherever you are tonight.” Those final three lines are perhaps the most emotional he’s ever uttered, no small achievement for an artist who’s delivered nothing but the sort across his discography.
For all the heartbreaking moments on the record there’s still some signature laugh-out-loud moments, even if they’re more fleeting than they’ve been on his past works. Tillman manages to validate one of the weakest songs on the album, “The Palace,” with the lines, “Last night I wrote a poem / Man, I must have been in the poem zone,” which has gotten a laugh out of me on every single listen. But, in keeping with the album’s tone, Tillman follows that line with a hauntingly Yorke-ian “I’m in over my head.” It’s the starkest contrast of comedy and tragedy on the record and it’s a moment that I haven’t been able to get out of my brain since I first heard it.
One of the more surprising themes on the record is the way he interacts with religion. Tillman was raised in a deeply religious household, but has since rebuked religion and spent a good portion of PURE COMEDY criticizing its harmful role in society. But at his lowest moments in the Bowery Hotel, Tillman had run out of things to clutch hold of and sought out help from God. It was a connection that didn’t come to fruition, but elements of that pursuit are present on the record. One of the more subtle examples is on the title track, which has a call-and-response chorus featuring Natalie Mering (aka Weyes Blood) that is reminiscent of church choir hymns. Mering’s vocals are among the most stunning on the record and a welcome collaboration that will hopefully be repeated on Misty’s next record.
Tillman tosses in some fantastically bizarre metaphors on “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All.” He compares his relationship with his wife to perverts on a bus, rotting carcasses, and a sinking oil tanker. It’s far from the idyllic imagery commonly used to portray love and that’s the point; it still carries his character’s sharp, artistic flair, but Tillman is at his most self-aware and in a way criticizing his own portrayal of love on HONEYBEAR. In keeping with the dark response to HONEYBEAR, he flips his role from songwriter to subject on “The Songwriter.” He posits the question of how his wife, Emma, would write songs about their relationship if they swapped roles. Tillman acknowledges the way he has over-exposed their marriage in the past and scolds himself for the way he’s objectified her. These are the type of moments in which Tillman truly shines. When laser-focused on his own life and willing to drop part of the Misty charade, Tillman evokes his most powerful emotions and imagery in a way few artists can.