There are people who genuinely despise Father John Misty, and to be honest, he doesn’t exactly make a convincing case against it. Josh Tillman’s departure from Fleet Foxes unquestionably led to greater creative breadth and freedom, as shown from the critical acclaim for his 2015 breakthrough I Love You, Honeybear, but it only really became a divisive proposition with last year’s Pure Comedy, an hour-and-a-quarter exercise in Tillman wallowing in his own nihilism that was lauded as genius almost as much as it was dismissed as a self-important step too far. Neither conclusion is totally wrong, but the lead-up to God’s Favorite Customer has suggested that Tillman himself has fallen into the latter camp, openly describing his past work as “pretentious”, and with this self-proclaimed “sprightly” follow-up being half the length of its predecessor.
And maybe one day we’ll actually get that album, because it certainly isn’t this one. Indeed, God’s Favorite Customer could be a sequel of sorts to Pure Comedy in tone, with a depressed, broken Tillman checking in to a hotel for two months to self-medicate and ruminate over visions of his marriage breaking apart. And yet, this is much different than the nihilism exhibited on Pure Comedy; here, the songs are a lot simpler (typically only two verses and two choruses), and the language is far more direct in coming from Tillman’s cracked source. Thus, it makes sense that opener Hangout At The Gallows is the only instance that really differs in its presence as a conduit between the two sides, with the image of being stabbed on a capsizing ship to represent Tillman’s deterioration, and how those around him only seem to exacerbate it. It’s a similar case on Mr. Tillman; the hotel concierge is well aware of his debauched, self-destructive behaviour, but does nothing to actually stop it.
From then on God’s Favorite Customer is comprised of a series of vignettes surrounding Tillman’s overthinking personal scrutiny, isolating himself to escape his own worries that his failing marriage is his own fault, despite assertions from the perspective of his wife saying how she still cares on Please Don’t Die, and his own superego imparting the notions of an imperfect relationship being normal on Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All. It’s only on the final two tracks where the crucial revelation happens, wrapping this album’s narrative up as a great, fully fleshed-out one. The first is The Songwriter, where Tillman acknowledges how so many of his most successful songs have surrounded personal, intimate moments between him and his wife, and flips the roles to realise the extent of the strain its caused, rather than just wallowing in self-imposed conjecture. The second, and arguably more important one, is We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That), where Tillman reconnects with old friends (presumably his former band) and makes amends, both to them and himself by realising how flawed he really is, and how inflating them rather than working on them has been such a key part of his artistic persona. It’s indicative of genuine artistic growth, made all the more profound in the alteration of songwriting technique and style; whereas so much could’ve previously been attributed to the character Father John Misty, this feels like the reassertion of Tillman as the main character in his own story, and it makes for some potent, heartfelt moments.
And even with all of that, God’s Favorite Customer doesn’t quite wow as much as it could. The reason that the lyrics have been discussed to such an extent mainly boils down to, without that, there’d be very little else to talk about, as Tillman’s adoption of a simpler, more straightforward style doesn’t fare as successfully instrumentally. It’s honestly the sort of thing you’d expect, favouring warm, mid-tempo indie-folk and folk-rock that’s equable and listenable, but not much more than that. As much as Hangout At The Gallows and Please Don’t Die fill out their mixes with bells and additional guitars for a bigger, more expansive sound, they’re unfortunately in the minority; so many of these tracks lack an extra dimension that a very simple acoustic-and-accompaniment setup doesn’t allow, particularly in the piano-driven tracks The Palace and The Songwriter. As for Tillman himself, his flattened, distanced vocals do a good job at transmitting the necessary dejection this album thrives off, but again, it all stays straight down the middle, never pulling out into any weirder or more visceral, open directions. It’s probably Tillman’s safest album to date, sticking to the appealing, radio-friendly mould possible, and ultimately losing some of its spark because of that.
But really, the thing that people come to a Father John Misty album for more than anything is the writing, and God’s Favorite Customer really does have a lot to offer in that regard. Look past a rather underwhelming presentation, and there’s real depth here, unburdened by the artifice that typically characterises Tillman’s work to keep that sense of vulnerability and heartache right at the fore. Don’t be put off by the lack of flash and scale that came with I Love You, Honeybear and Pure Comedy before it; God’s Favorite Customer is still able to do a whole lot with very, very little.
For fans of: Sun Kil Moon, Sharon Van Etten, Jason Isbell
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘God’s Favorite Customer’ by Father John Misty is out now on Bella Union.