I came out of Father John Misty’s third album: Pure Comedy with a bad taste in my mouth. After giving it a listen or two I was inevitably turned off by Joshua Tillman’s insufferable ability to portray himself as a character who’s sanctimonious. Yet, here I am a year later singing the praises of his newest studio LP God’s Favorite Customer. So what’s happened? Why the sudden change of heart? Well, the answer isn’t all that simple.
In an interview with NME Father John Misty, himself confirmed the album was not rooted in any specific concepts like his previous outings. In his own words, he admitted they were, in one way or another, “kind of pretentious.” In this, I saw a sign of change in Father John Misty’s mind, a glimmer of hope in a desolate wasteland of pompous, self-aware, singer-songwriter tunes. It was clear that rather than delivering a scathing social commentary he wants to talk about something much more personal. Something that was bigger than himself. This is where everything changed for me. I was in full support.
Despite his previous sentiments, God’s Favorite Customer still manages to tell an elaborate story across its forty minute runtime. For once Father John Misty is incapable of portraying himself in his usual bombastic persona. Instead, he’s inclined to sing about himself while he was in his most vulnerable state. With that said, this album isn’t so much about Father John Misty as it’s about Joshua Tillman. It’s about a man who’s been shaken to his core. It’s about being forced to examine yourself at your worst when you’re so utterly defeated by despair and hardship. Tillman explained that before the release of the album he went through a two month period where he stayed at the Bowery Hotel when he was reportedly “on the straights.” That period of time serves as the albums main inspiration and set piece.
Another theme that serves as a major inspiration for Father John Misty’s music is ironically religion. Due to its omnipresence in a myriad of ways, it’s something I’m also going to be focusing on in this article. However, I’m going to be analyzing it through the lens of someone who actually believes in God. I’ll be sure to point out the brief periods of theological ignorance Tillman often sprinkles throughout this discography whenever I find it most apt. The name of the record itself is a good place to begin.
The rather pious title can be taken in a number of ways but I see the title of God’s favorite customer as a position of prestige and weakness in some respects. To be God’s favorite customer means you constantly require His assistance. For whatever reason, you find yourself dependent upon His comforting word, calling out to Him more often than not. The title is also a bit paradoxical as God isn’t supposed to pick favorites. Romans 2 verse 11 spells this out very explicitly.
For God does not show favoritism.
This revelation makes the title of God’s favorite customer all the more insignificant as to now show favoritism everyone must be God’s favorite customer. Significance is something Tillman actively chases throughout the record. Whether the title is meant to highlight his feelings of worthlessness or to be taken humorously, its a good example of the persistent theme of religion he frequently uses without discretion. Now without any further delay, let’s get into the music, shall we?
“Hangout at the Gallows” marks the beginning of Tillman’s journey through despair. It’s carried by a slow drumbeat and a plucky bass. Father John Misty sounds desperate and even a bit deranged as he coos about the gallows. In case you don’t already know, gallows are a set of structures that were primarily used for public hangings back during a time when capital punishment was more primitive. It’s here where the title of this track should make more sense as it’s a painfully obvious pun about suicide. Tillman’s suicidal thoughts are regularly shared on this album making it a much more poignant experience. It’s a rather somber note for the album to begin on and it only gets severer as the listener trudges onward.
“Mr. Tillman” is the next track and my personal favorite. It’s a great example of self-reflection as Father John Misty doesn’t sing about himself from a first-person perspective instead; taking on the role of a hotel concierge frustrated with him. It’s a rather pleasant sounding song, with a loud acoustic guitar, charming bells, and beautiful harmonies done by Father John Misty himself. However, all of this is immediately contrasted by its decisively melancholic sentiments.
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. No, they aren’t running lines and they aren’t exactly thrilled. Would you like a regalo on the patio? Is there someone we can call? Perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone….
The track references the hotel Tillman stayed at during that two-month period where he was having a personal dilemma. In fact, its working title was simply “Bowery.” The listener is able to take pity on poor Tillman; his humiliating actions have caused him to become a public nuisance. His crass character traits were also displayed on the previous track when he asks the audience, “Whats your politics? Whats your religion.” Both of which are inappropriate to ask so outwardly. Nonetheless, the hotel receptionist attempts to stay as professional as possible whilst subtlety scolding him.
“Just Dumb Enough To Try” is Tillman’s failed attempt at regaining his haughty stature. It’s posed like a love song but it’s conclusively about how Tillman is a failure at love and by extent life itself. This was the track that really opened my eyes to Father John Misty’s inner struggle and growth not just as a musician but as a person. While the entire album is a harsh self-reflection this is one song that really deconstructs his personal character flaws. Flaws that were undoubtedly the terminal cause of his downfall. “Date Night” maintains this theme and further exemplifies Tillman’s sleazy nature. Whether it’s supposed to be him talking to his wife or another woman entirely is not exactly clear, but a lot can be derived from his words. Despite his unfavorable situation he still tries to maintain his egocentrism.
Nothing surprises me much. And my hobbies include: Laughing in the dark. Do you want to go to the farm? Do you want to go to the park? I’ll get you ice cream if you give me your card.
This lark of a persona comes to a halt once we get to the next track “Please Don’t Die.” Father John Misty recapitulates the theme of suicide and depression as he sings from the perspective of his wife who’s very overtly pleading with him to not kill himself. It’s another song that highlights the negative characteristics of Tillman. Suicide is an act often seen as selfish to some degree. Contrary to what many may believe the pain of the victim doesn’t die along with them, instead, its carried on to the ones who truly loved and cared about them. Tillman has revealed before his struggles with depression and how much his wife has helped him through it. However, it seems their estrangement has only caused it to fester. Tillman realizes this and makes progress to end his suffering on the next track.
Tillman’s soft piano driven song, “The Palace” is him finally personally acknowledging his shortcomings. He pokes fun at his drug abuse, recognizes how badly he treats others, and admits he needs help and is ready to change.
Last night I texted your iPhone. And said I think I’m ready to come home. I’m in over my head.
It’s a hopeful end to Tillmans despair. As he, after all this time, understands the fruitlessness of maintaining his masquerade. After “The Palace” the album seldom returns to the routine subject matter Father John Misty so often tackles. “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All” and “The Songwriter are both about his wife. But the title track is one of particular importance as it somewhat continues the narrative of the record.
“God’s Favorite Customer” follows Tillman on, as he puts it, “another night on the straights” where he unexpectedly calls out to God for direction. Father John Misty has made it clear he doesn’t believe in God. During his childhood played religion such a prominent role in his life that it ultimately drove him away from it and with it his evangelical parents. However, this track captures one fleeting moment where he once again drops his idiosyncratic attitude to call out to something greater than himself. Ironically he still does this selfishly as he believes the former title of God’s favorite customer entitles him to special treatment. It still manages to be a very interesting departure from his usual inflammatory statements toward religion and the bible you can’t help but see how far down the rabbit hole Tillman leaped during his dark period.
The closing track of the record “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” is Tillman finally changing. It neatly wraps up his misadventure through suffering in his usual methodical manner. Tillman shows a better understanding of himself and other people as he decides to relate himself to them rather than attempting to further distance himself. He’s taken his period of crisis as a learning experience and seeks to change for the better. A happy ending to a sad story.
Father John Misty continues to impress as his albums show consistent maturity throughout the years. The man who had claimed to know all the answers was finally met with one that couldn’t be solved. This album is a perfect metaphor for growth both in musicality and in spirit. For the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.