One of the things that make Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, such a unique and compelling musical figure in the 21st century is his uncanny ability to cherry-pick the best traits of artists that came before him. He possesses the satirical snark of Frank Zappa, the larger-than-life arranging skills of Randy Newman, the eloquent chord structures of Brian Wilson and the hyper-literate existential ennui of Warren Zevon. Presented as a bearded, indie rock shaman full of earthly desires who loves playing the media, Tillman is a master of contradictions, living squarely in the present but constantly reaching into the past.
Additionally, Tillman clearly has a foot in a bygone musical area when it comes to assigning themes to particular albums. His third post-Fleet Foxes solo album, 2017’s Pure Comedy, was a wide-ranging treatise on everything from politics, human nature, and climate change to social media, religion, and virtual reality porn. On his new album, God’s Favorite Customer, Tillman does a complete 180 and focuses on more autobiographical themes, much like 2014’s I Love You, Honeybear. The difference here is that God’s Favorite Customer is often draped in heartbreak and sadness.
From a purely musical perspective, God’s Favorite Customer also signals a massive change from Pure Comedy in that it’s executed on a much smaller scale. While Pure Comedy reveled in gorgeous, ambitious arrangements – often sounding like Harry Nilsson on a Van Dyke Parks bender – the new album returns to a more intimate band dynamic. Tillman plays much of the drums and guitar on the album, in addition to a variety of other instruments, and a small assembly of co-conspirators is on hand, including Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado (who’s also one of the album’s co-producers), Mark Ronson, and frequent Tillman collaborator Jonathan Wilson.
The results of this change of pace vary wildly – the album’s downbeat opener, “Hangout at the Gallows”, marries Tillman’s full-throated choruses with a loping bass line and subtle string passages reminiscent of the previous album. But that’s followed by “Mr. Tillman”, yet another self-referential bit of meta where the singer jokingly leans into his celebrity status by taking the point of view of a hotel desk clerk: “Mr. Tillman, for the seventh time / We have no knowledge of a film that is being shot outside.” Jason Isbell is even name-dropped for good measure. The track is a fun diversion – not necessarily the album’s most memorable moment, but it shows that Tillman can still be a light-hearted scamp among the sadness.
And there’s certainly plenty of sadness, which often manifests itself in some brilliant writing and arranging. The ballad “Please Don’t Die” contains some of Tillman’s most emotive singing (with lines like the world-weary “I’m feeling older than my 35 years,”) paired with touches of vintage Americana like harmonica, piano, and twangy guitar leads straight out of Neil Young’s Harvest. But there are also moments when the retro leanings veer off into more maudlin territory, such as on “Just Dumb Enough to Try”, an earnest break-up ballad that hits a few clunky soft-rock notes (despite a buzzing synth solo that gives the song a unique flavor).
But Tillman refuses to spend an entire album feeling sorry for himself. “Date Night” is a refreshing surprise, a gritty, Beck-like helping of indie garage psych-folk, propped up by sturdy acoustic guitar, funky vocal cadences and head-scratching lyrics (“I’ve got your number from that sign in the lawn / I also want to vanquish evil, but my mojo is gone”). Unfortunately, in keeping with the more compact structure of the album, the runtime is too short and begs for at least one more witty verse. The brilliant single “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All” is an additional – ahem – gem that’s over far too soon. A power pop masterpiece with McCartney-esque bass runs, aching falsetto and over-the-top production, it’s another ’70s throwback that sounds like a cross between a long-forgotten ELO single and a deep album cut from All Things Must Pass.
From a musical standpoint, God’s Favorite Customer approaches Pure Comedy most closely on the piano-driven “The Palace”, which sounds like a slightly downscaled version of the previous album’s “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”. Recounting the two months he spent living out of a hotel (where these songs were conceived), Tillman is in a reflective-yet-jocular mood. “Maybe I’ll get a pet,” he wonders. “Learn how to take care of somebody else / Maybe I’ll name him Jeff / But I think it might defeat the purpose / Living on housekeeping and room service.” He also pokes fun at the often self-important pomposity of the singer-songwriter: “Last night I wrote a poem / Man, I must have been in the poem zone.” Like Beautiful South/Housemartins singer and lyricist Paul Heaton, Tillman loves combining satirical lyrical swipes with gorgeous melodies, as the gospel-tinged piano chords seem to fly in the face of the twisted humor. It’s jarring in the best possible way.
“I’m in the business of living,” Tillman sings on the wistful title track, accompanied by a warm Wurlitzer and Mellotron flutes. “Yeah, that’s something I’d say / All I need is a new friend / I’m only five blocks away.” Calling God’s Favorite Customer Father John Misty’s “break-up album” is probably not off the mark, but it shouldn’t discourage anyone who was swept up in the epic grandeur of Pure Comedy. This is the same Josh Tillman you’ve known all these years, albeit one who’s shifting gears while retaining both his characteristic wit and his unique way with a melody.