Published May 29, 2018Josh Tillman returns as Father John Misty on God's Favorite Customer, blurring the lines between artist and alter-ego and trading humour for heartbreak on a concise record that's as sombre as it is satisfying.
"I'm treading water as I bleed to death" Tillman sings on the opener "Hangout at the Gallows," setting the tone for his most raw effort as Father John Misty yet — it's an emotionally wounded, ambitious attempt to capture a man at his most desperate, all in under 40 minutes.
God's Favorite Customer is certainly a continuation of the Misty character, but rather than trying to build on the lofty highs reached on Pure Comedy, Tillman takes his progress for a joyride straight into a pole, letting us ogle the gruesome details as he bleeds out in the driver's seat. Where Pure Comedy was wrought with witty social commentary, soaring above lush arrangements, this album often takes a dive into morbid melancholy. When Tillman reaches into his falsetto to sing "I'm in over my head" on "The Palace," his fragile quiver is unmistakeably genuine.
Sonically, God's Favorite Customer follows Tillman's usual blend of piano- and guitar-driven folk-rock balladry with masterful production. Even in the dense mixes, every instrument punches through, heard without becoming overbearing.
There's enough variety mixed in to keep the instrumentals fresh, with luxurious string passages, warm organ swells, overdriven guitar riffs, some harmonica and even a fuzzed-out synth tone.
Perhaps the album is a little less grand and a little less fun than its predecessors; that's to be expected from a man who spent two months living in a hotel when he penned the record. The lead single "Mr. Tillman" features a delicate piano line that follows the vocal melody and uses Tillman's layered voice as a backing instrument while introducing us to the hotel that's referenced across the ten tracks. Tillman is clearly notorious at the hotel from previous stays, and he somehow manages to make a song about checking in catchy as hell.
The album then takes a hopeless turn on the visceral and downtrodden "Just Dumb Enough to Try," where Tillman's brutally honest lyrics offer no silver lining, ridiculing himself for believing he'll "get out with my skin and start my life again." It's a low point he returns to over and over, with no solace in sight.
Although the album is relatively free of Tillman's signature sarcasm and cynicism, he still manages to raise his head from his manic depression to deliver a few memorable quips. Like on "The Palace," a sparse, slow-burning piano ballad that paints the clearest portrait of Tillman's extended hotel stay, where he proclaims "Last night I wrote a poem / Man I must've been in the poem zone" and "Maybe I'll get a pet, learn how to take care of somebody else / Maybe I'll name him Jeff."
Tillman truly bares all on "The Songwriter," which might be the most vulnerable moment in his discography. He seems to sing directly to his wife over barren piano chords, asking aloud how'd she'd portray him to the masses if she were the one writing songs. It's heart-wrenching, but he seems to reach a previously unrealized understanding, which may end up being his lone shot at redemption on God's Favorite Customer.
Tillman's latest record may not quite reach the mountainous heights of Pure Comedy, although there's an argument to be made that it digs itself just as deep in the opposite direction. As Tillman muses on "Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All," "Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?" Perhaps that's the best case he makes for God's Favorite Customer. Not every record needs to topple the last with even more epic instrumentation and colossal wit. Sometimes it's better to crash and burn in a hotel room for two months. (Sub Pop)