Father John Misty’s three albums, and now his fourth, have been a reckoning with himself, all his messy wants, needs, fuckups and hangups; he makes music to explain himself to himself. Raised an evangelical who didn’t really start his life until after he left Fleet Foxes as a 30-year-old and stopped trying to fit himself into a box he was never comfortable in, Josh Tillman has been trying to figure out who he is, and what he is, through his Father John Misty albums ever since. Fear Fun grappled with his miserablist persona as a folkie-indie rocker, and found deliverance in tuning in and dropping out. I Love You, Honeybear was a myopic, oft-cynical look into love, written in the eye of a hurricane of a new relationship with his now-wife Emma Tillman. Last year’s masterwork, Pure Comedy, tried to answer the big questions, the “Why are we here” and “Why do we do this?” that rattle not only Tillman’s existence, but everyone else’s too. That Josh Tillman chooses to bury these very real personal accountings in waves of social media stunts and performance art interviews is beside the point — and also, as evinced by this this stunning New Yorker profile is maybe actually the point. God’s Favorite Customer, his superlative new album, strips down the artifice to give the most forward album in Father John Misty’s catalog, an oft-dark album full of heartbreak, ennui, self-abuse and unfettered self-examination that tries to answer what happens when you have everything you want and try to blow it up.
God’s Favorite Customer is, almost out of necessity, smaller in scope than Pure Comedy. That album had tales of bedding Taylor Swift in virtual reality; here Misty is spending “another night on the straits, all bug-eyed and babbling.” Instead of orchestral, maxed-out songs wondering how God could make humans to suffer through a meaningless existence, here there’s a stripped-down song where a concerned hotel staff tells Misty that they’re worried about him. It turns out that song wasn’t fiction; in 2016, when these songs were started, Tillman was holed up in a hotel having a breakdown. “I was living in a hotel for two months. It’s kind of about… yeah… misadventure,” Misty told Uncut last year. “The words were just pouring out of me. It’s really rooted in something that happened last year that was… well, my life blew up. I think the music essentially serves the purpose of making the painful and the isolating less painful and less isolating. But in short, it’s a heartache album.”
It takes only to the third track to know what precipitated this breakdown: a frayed relationship with his wife, caused by his own narcissism and not realizing he’s treating her bad till it’s too late. “Just Dumb Enough to Try” opens with a devastating run of lines:
*“I know a few 10-cent words /
*I can break out to keep up with her /
*But you can take what I know about love /
*And drown it in the sink /
*I know my way around a tune /
*Won't be a single dry eye in a room /
*But you can take what I know about you /
And maybe fill a small balloon.”
Tillman finally found the semi-stardom that he always thought would be his deliverance, but he only recently realized that he’d been searching so hard he didn’t realize how miserable he was as a partner. Self-discovery often comes at the cost of someone else, and Tillman had to lock himself in a hotel for two months and blow his life up to realize that. Sometimes you don’t notice you’re using someone as a stand-in or repository for all your problems, and you can’t realize you need to change till you trip and lose your mind.
Elsewhere, Tillman recounts the fucked-up weeks in the hotel on “Mr. Tillman,” and is begged by a partner in “Please Don’t Die,” which opens with “One more wasted morning, when I could be holding you / to my side / someone stop this joyless joyride / I’m feeling older than my 35.” On the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Songwriter,” he fantasizes about his wife being the songwriter, dissecting their love and marriage, and him treating her poorly, before calling her loving him her “unsung masterpiece.” It’s a naked, beautiful song that’s lessons can only be earned. It’s one of the best songs Tillman has ever written.
God’s Favorite Customer might feel like a step down after the widescreen grandeur of Pure Comedy, but its rewards are in its flayed-open depictions of a real relationship. Not everyone is destined to be “the greatest story ever told,” Tillman sings on “Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All,” laying bare the hard work and reflection that comes with actually being in love with someone else. Tillman’s Father John Misty persona has always been about trying to get to some version of himself that’s real. On God’s Favorite Customer, he is the purest version of himself: heartbroken, sad and ready to start over.