Father John Misty Tackles Love and Life From a Hotel Room and ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ Documents It
Joshua Tillman is best known under the moniker “Father John Misty.” Sometimes recording under another name, one can open up the possibilities of creative expression, and Tillman’s music under the FJM label has done just this. His new album, “God’s Favorite Customer” continues in the tradition of a tongue-in-cheek religious posturing, and a bold lyrical survey of humanity at large.
Some of Tillman’s past antics might shed a little light on his new lyrics. He created a stir by walking off mid set at 2016’s XPoNential Music Festival after only two songs and one impassioned tirade about how “stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid.” He discouraged the audience from applauding, instead suggesting, “”Maybe just take a moment to be really fucking profoundly sad.” In an Instagram post the following day, Tilman put the performance in the context of Trump’s speech the preceding night, which he called a “demonic clown pageant coronation of our next potential Idiot King.” The cheerily titled album opener, “Hangout at the Gallows” poses the questions, “What’s your politics? / What’s your religion?” In the era of identity politics, the sentiment could just as well be expressed, “How do you identify?” There’s a tacit mockery at the simplicity of defining one’s self based on such limiting abstractions, but it’s delivered in a droll, reflective, playful jest, rather than an aggressive snarl, and this is very much the general approach of the album.
Lyrically, “Mr. Tillman” is an absolute gem. It recounts the eponymous singer’s six-week long stay at a hotel, following a personal crisis, in a hilarious manner, with Tilman assuming the role of concierge, and addressing, “Mr. Tillman, good to see you again / There’s a few outstanding charges just before we check you in / Let’s see here, you left your passport in the mini fridge.” This gets even wilder in the second verse, with the concierge reassuring, “Mr. Tillman, for the seventh time / We have no knowledge of a film that is being shot outside / Those aren’t extras in a movie; they’re our clientele.” We’re talking “simulated reality” paranoia — anyone seen “The Truman Show?” Truth of the matter is that you can never really be sure this isn’t all a film with your good self as the uninformed lead actor. As an artist, constantly mining the world around you for inspiration, it’s easy to get caught in your headspace and descend into total delusional mayhem–think Syd Barrett. Tillman puts it succinctly, “I’m living on a cloud above an island in my mind.” Still, he insists, “I’m feeling good, damn, I’m feeling so fine,” a sentiment that he reiterates in the following track, “Just Dumb Enough to Try,” saying, “Everything’s cool, I’m great, it’s fine.”
The aforementioned song revisits the “How do you identify?” subject, but now with a more somber tone and greater depth. While politics and religion are laughably inadequate definers of identity, there aren’t really any alternatives especially deserving of merit. We’re limited by our individual consciousness, and to truly understand another person is a mere exercise in futility. Tillman explores the frustration of this reality with lyrics like, “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.” Still, he retains an optimistic note, declaring, “But I’m just dumb enough to try / To keep you in my life / For a little while longer.”
While this last line would place Tillman neatly in the hopeless romantic territory that we’ve come to expect of reflective, sentimental artists, Tillman takes up a decidedly different tune on the single “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All.” Take a moment to digest the title. Sidelong glances, a spontaneous kiss at the perfect moment, candle-lit dinners, and all the rest are so played out. Disappointment, on the other hand — now that’s real. Leave it to Tillman to describe love in the most macabre terms imaginable: “Like a pervert on a crowded bus / A glare of love bears down on us / Like a carcass left out in the heat / This love is bursting out of me.” It’s very T.S. Eliot. Rather than the usual portrayal of love as a welcome, wonderful force that overwhelms us and leaves us enraptured in bliss, love is depicted here as an inescapable, intrusive, meddlesome burden that subjects us all to its oppressive dictates. This isn’t to say it’s necessarily bad, just torturous. Tillman goes on to reason, “And a love that lasts forever really can’t be that special.” This is the type of seemingly obvious, yet unrealized profundity that seems to come so naturally to Tillman. It’s likely just a fleeting, vaguely amusing thought, but the implications are momentous. The first concept you learn in Economics class is scarcity — and how worthless is something that’s available forever? Maybe it’s no coincidence that the most capitalist country in the world also has the highest divorce rate. Chances are, however, that Tillman is just musing, and is still a romantic at heart, because only that would explain such heartfelt music. He further explores the immensely confounding relationship dynamic in “The Songwriter,” asking, “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter / And you did your living around me? / Would you undress me repeatedly in public / To show how very noble and naked you can be?” This recalls Tillman’s outburst that “entertainment is stupid,” drawing attention to the absurdity of ghostwriters, etc. The real message, however, is about people cherry picking their moments, curating their experiences, to present glossy albums very loosely based on a true story.
When you imagine a rockstar, of sorts, seeking refuge in a hotel for an extended period, settling in like Alan Partridge, and alarming strangers with likely drug-addled eccentricity, a factor that falls neatly into the mix is a jadedness born out of the stardom and the disillusionment that readily follows. This makes its way into the lyrics of “Date Night,” “Nothing surprises me much / And my hobbies include / Laughing in the dark.” It’s funny to imagine if this were the opening dialogue for an actual “date night”; if the date were a goth, perhaps it would work. The feeling finds firmer grounding in the statement, “I also want to vanquish evil but my mojo is gone.” The Trump speech, the Truman Show suspicions all fall into place with this shrugging voicing of desperation. Such anticlimactic washout often leads to traces of suicidality, a subject that is hinted at in the unaffectedly titled, “Please Don’t Die.” The title itself is arguably the most earnest expression of love imaginable, expressing a reduction to the most primitive imploring, out of affection and attachment. The song has Tillman’s usual self-awareness, with lines like, “I’ll take it easy with the morbid stuff.” The song ostensibly takes the perspective of Tillman’s wife, with the lyrics, “Oh my god, you’re so naive / You’ll leave this world in a drunken heap / Who’ll make the arrangements, baby, them or me?” It’s calling out the slit-wristing, hair-flopping, whining attention seekers, reminding them that when you kill yourself, the world goes on, hardly affected. It’s the ones that truly love you who bear the burden.
Have no worries though, Tillman clarifies, in “God’s Favorite Customer,” “I’m in the business of living.” It should be noted that Tillman grew up in an ultra-religious household that only allowed him to listen to Christian music, expanding the restrictions to “spiritual” music when Tillman was age seventeen. Here, he calls, “Don’t you remember me?/ I was God’s favorite customer.” In times of severe distress, it’s natural to reason, “Well, I’ve put in my time, where are you now?” Tillman goes on to observe, “I’m out here testing the maxim / That all good things have to stop.” The mind-blowing experience of success can be surreal, bringing on the paranoia and what not, and at one point, one just has to shrug it off and ride the wave. What else could we do? We’re only people.
And so, the album ends with “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That.)” Tillman notes, “The company gets pretty thin / So we start to shed all our distinctions.” With fewer people to contrast yourself with, it can become more clear that we’re all essentially the same, in a way. It’s telling that this song concludes an album that began with, “What’s your politics? / What’s your religion?” The sentiment is worlds away now, coming in the questions, “So why not me? / Why not you? / Why not now?” It’s an acknowledgement of shared consciousness, universal humanity, and empathy.
There are very few artists around today who can effectively condense so much profundity into lyrics, and deliver them in a way that sounds unaffected and unforced. Father John Misty’s music is fairly conventional, in sharp contrast to his madcap lyrical adventurism. The predominant piano, a feature largely disposed of in contemporary rock music, gives the songs a ‘70s feel. Lots of the songs sound very Electric Light Orchestra. Tillman has an angelic falsetto croon that imparts a great deal to the songs. There’s a lighthearted feel that serves as an effective counterpart to the often grave subject matter. And there’s an overall rustic, foksy quality to the music that any fans of Fleet Foxes will relate to. In a way, the musical conventionality makes the messages resound more, giving them a recognizable backdrop over which to shine. “God’s Favorite Customer” is a rich, earnest album that taps into subjects that meeker artists shy away from, with an elegance that makes it outstanding.
“God’s Favorite Customer” is available June 1 on Apple Music.