People often (mistakenly) interpret the Father John Misty persona as being cover for Josh Tillman to be some sort of “holier-than-thou” troll, thus missing the bigger picture on his third album, the 76-minute opus Pure Comedy. The follow-up to Comedy, however, is the polar opposite – God’s Favorite Customer is a concise ten track effort that clocks in under 40 minutes and peels back the Misty avatar to reveal a wounded, introspective Tillman. It takes courage to be this vulnerable – especially when Tillman has spent the last three albums examining and critiquing the world and culture around him. But on his fourth album under the Misty moniker, Tillman takes a step back from that macro view of everything around him and turned his gaze insular, resulting in the most heartbreaking record of 2018.
While the promo-machine for Pure Comedy was cranked into overdrive last year, there has been only radio silence from Tillman leading up to God’s Favorite Customer’s release. The only narrative surrounding the album was the fact that it was conceived while Tillman was residing in a hotel as his life imploded around him (“I was living in a hotel for two months. It’s kind of about…yeah…misadventure,” Misty explained to Uncut in the only press he’s given surrounding this record. “It’s really rooted in something that happened last year that was…well, my life blew up”). Really, an apt summary of God’s Favorite Customer is heard just a few lines into “Dumb Enough To Try,” as Tillman utters, “But you can take what I know about love/And drown it in the sink.” Tillman hasn’t lost the taste of his sardonic wit; he’s just turning it on himself this go around.
At times on Customer, it truly feels like Tillman is exploring the five stages of grief throughout the album’s ten tracks – and sometimes a handful of them feature two at once. There’s denial on the misleadingly perky first single, “Mr. Tillman” (“I’m feeling good/Damn, I’m feeling so fine/I’m living on a cloud above an island in my mind/Okay babe, don’t be alarmed this is just my vibe). He volleys between bargaining and acceptance on the album’s poignant centerpiece, “The Palace,” a powerful piano ballad in which Tillman realizes that the manic throes of freedom he’s afforded for himself isn’t going to triumph over this dizzying amount of heartache (“But I don’t wanna leave the palace/Let’s pay someone to move in and fix this/Last night I texted your iPhone/And said I’m ready to come home”). Depression rears its head through Tillman’s customary dry sarcasm on the record’s fascinating opener “Hangout At The Gallows” along with the mesmerizing two-and-a-half minute romp “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” featuring some of the record’s more cutting lyrics.
But that wit disguises the true pain Tillman’s experiencing. There’s nothing lighthearted about this record. “Please Don’t Die” is deceivingly upbeat – once again showcasing how talented Tillman is at creating infectious melodies within 3 or so minutes – but unfurls perhaps the most heart-wrenching chorus of the year, as Tillman pleads with his love as well as begging God or some higher power to not take it all away from him (You’re all that I have so please don’t die/Wherever you are tonight). And the album’s Americana-tinged title track reveals Tillman coming face to face with a reckoning of sorts (Speak to me/Won’t you speak, sweet angel?/Don’t you remember me?/I was God’s favorite customer/But now I’m in trouble). However, the emotional crux on God’s Favorite Customer is the beautifully devastating “The Songwriter.” A simple yet gripping number backed only by yearning piano keys and a resigned vocal delivery, Tillman channels a subtle anger at himself for treating his loved one so poorly, writing from the perspective of role reversal and placing the blame for this broken relationship squarely on his shoulders (“What would it sound like if you were the songwriter/And loving me was your unsung masterpiece?”).
Perhaps the greatest talent Josh Tillman possesses as Father John Misty is his ability to keep listeners and critics constantly off-balance. And I’m not just comparing this album cycle to previous ones, but also how Tillman maintains a vibrant tension throughout God’s Favorite Customer. On “Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest of Them All,” Tillman takes a harsh approach to love in general, throwing out barbs like, “And a love that last forever really can’t be that special/Sure we know our roles, how it’s supposed to go/Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?” And sure, God’s Favorite Customer’s take on broken love and how Tillman arrived at it isn’t particularly unique within indie rock, but the way the entirety of the record revolves around this incredibly volatile moment in Tillman’s life and how he depicts and shares this heartache is unique; injecting a bitter sweetness within the album’s stark but humbling candor. So maybe not the greatest story ever told, but God’s Favorite Customer definitely emerges as the most thrilling and engaging listen of 2018, ultimately producing Josh Tillman’s most humanizing work as Father John Misty.