It only takes a few minutes digesting the opening track from Josh Tillman’s latest LP to understand that the enigmatic singer songwriter is, to put it simply, not in a good place. His conclusion to the difficult, perpetual issues surrounding the human race on last year’s triumphant ‘Pure Comedy’ was that rather than allowing fear to prevail, we should enjoy our lives as much as it is possible to. It was a reassuringly positive message issued in dark times. In comparison, this fourth release under the Father John Misty moniker begins with reassurances but is offset immediately against threats of an impending apocalypse.
Of course, there is some context to this sudden darkening of the skies. In a recent interview with Uncut he discussed the writing of the album and specifically a six-week “misadventure” living in a hotel. Centred around an event last year where his life “blew up”, he labelled the ensuing collection of songs as a “heartbreak album”. For an artist who is known, and loved, for songs that normally contain such fierce, self-aware wit and grandiose constructions, this new material is very much a detour for Tillman, both extremely personal and minimal. Those components by themselves would suggest a diminishing return but the result is quite the opposite. ‘God’s Favourite Customer’ is a dark, pained masterpiece that presents a scathing assessment of love and Tillman’s own battered psyche. However, at its core is the towering songwriting that’s always elevated his finest work.
The changes are almost instantly audible but perhaps the one of the most notable is the length of the record which clocks in at 38 minutes over ten tracks, making it his shortest album by some distance. The compositions are much more compact and concise, feeling like a ruthless refinement of the formula. ‘Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All’ is a perfect example. Powered by a glam rock bounce, it’s a sleek, ravishing cut, with Tillman packing a generous amount of insight, intelligence and ambiguity into its lean two and a half minutes. In it, he compares love to “a pervert on a crowded bus”, “a carcass left out in the heat” and more interestingly, as a “constant twitching” in his eye. During the chorus his rather fine falsetto peaks, and wonderfully delivers the bruising line: “Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?”
Tillman himself is often the target in his songs and here, the self deprecation is also combined with brutal self examination. It’s an album littered with moments that are genuinely alarming in their frankness. “I know a few ten-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” he sings on the stunning ballad, ‘Just Dumb Enough To Try’. Meanwhile, ‘The Songwriter’ is even better, with Tillman questioning his own confessional style of writing. Set against nothing but gorgeous, spare piano chords, he ponders a hypothetical scenario involving the subject of his affection: “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?” It’s pretty arresting stuff, although matters do turn much more internalised and bleak elsewhere.
‘The Palace’ is quite easily the most haunting piece of music the Maryland songwriter has put his name to. It details his life at the time, while he was holed up in a hotel away from his wife. He makes a simple but telling confession that he’s in over his head but the discordant music accompanying it make it truly affecting. Light gospel is thrown into the mix during the superb title track, which sees him display rare vulnerability. It sounds like a cry for help. As ever, the playing throughout is terrific and the aforementioned, apocalyptic opening of ‘Hangout At The Gallows’ sets the tone spectacularly with its prog-like ‘70s drum fills and warped swells of noise that escalate towards each chorus.
While this is a particularly sombre and self reflective record, it’s not without splashes of humour, although it’s likely there will be some fans yearning for the usual Misty overload of comic barbs. Lead single ‘Mr. Tillman’ imagines himself back at the hotel, exhibiting signs of Truman Show-style paranoia while the concierge keenly points out a list of his misdemeanours, throughout what appear to be numerous visits. It begins with him misplacing his passport in the mini fridge, his mattress ends up on the balcony and before we know it, hotel staff are being grilled about a film he is certain is being shot outside. In the end, they have little remedy to diffuse his drunken escapades: “Would you like a regalo on the patio? / Is there someone we can call? / Perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone.” On ‘Please Don’t Die’, Tillman offers humour as a lovely riposte to the troubled thoughts whirring round his brain: “Oh god, you must’ve woken up / To me saying that it’s all too much / I’ll take it easy with the morbid stuff.”
It would be overly simplistic to call ‘God’s Favourite Customer’ just a breakup album and doing so would be a huge disservice to the music. The ride to its exciting core may not be easy, exploring some dark territory along the way, but by dialling down on the bombast and refining his craft further, Josh Tillman has also made his most personal record yet. It’s another marvellous addition to the Father John Misty catalogue, delivered from a songwriter that surely now deserves to be recognised as one of, if not the greatest, of this decade.
Words: Luke Winstanley
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