A Pitchfork editor reluctantly gave J. Tillman, aka: Father John Misty, a Best New Album badge for his most recent work, God’s Favorite Customer. The editor, Jeremy D. Larson insisted that, while Misty is still “self absorbed” and that “his music is not as important as it seems,” his fourth album “exhibits a new sense of empathy and vulnerability while losing none of his wit.”
Tillman’s work as Father John Misty is as self-absorbed as one might expect. But the spectacle of watching him transform from Tillman to Misty (and other bizarre personas that manifest in his songs) is as entertaining as any artist’s duet with an alter ego can be — think Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce and Jim Morrison’s Mr. Mojo Risin’.
What differs Misty from Beyonce and Morrison is his ability to deliver the most blunt and astute observations of modern life wrapped in a stream of indie-folk psychedelia.
Tillman first appeared on the music scene as the heartrending drums behind the sylvan Fleet Foxes’ first three albums. After the Foxes’ critical darling, Helplessness Blues, Tillman took off on his own and wowed crowds with his impressive lyrical acrobats, forlorn piano playing, and smokey lounge singing in Fear Fun, his first album.
Three years after Fear Fun came I Love You Honeybear, winning over hipster America with its topsy turvy characters — his songs a parade of comical and surprisingly tender lyrics.
Though often tender, Misty has always made clever cultural speculations in songs such as “True Affection,” which captures the awkwardness of online courting with lyrics like:
“When can we talk with the face ‘stead of using all these strange devices?”
If “True Affection” is subtle, songs like “Fun Times in Babylon” are as subtle as a jackhammer:
“I would like to abuse my lungs
Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved
Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in mud
Look out Hollywood, here I come.”
The narrator of “Fun Times at Babylon” is aware of an inevitable collapse, and yet is urgent to indulge in the cheap thrills of today with reckless abandon. Much like Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” Misty shares the tension between realizing we live in a disturbed nation with nursing a desire to retreat into pleasure and excess to distract himself from his own despondency.
Paste Magazine’s Shane Ryan describes Tillman’s descent into excess as a response to the death of America, saying he’s “too full of life to succumb to the defeatist ennui that may be the only logical reaction to late-stage capitalism, [and rather] advocates for a kind of nihilistic hedonism in the face of the collapse.”
But the face of destruction inspires creation as well. Tillman’s creation of Father John Misty is as intriguing as it is eye roll-inducing, difficult to interpret as an act of complete narcissism or of self-annihilation. In “Everyman Needs a Companion” Tillman sings:
“Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones
Couldn’t give me a myth
So I had to write my own
Like I’m hung up on religion
Though I know it’s a waste
I never liked the name Joshua
I got tired of J.”
At times, Tillman hearkens the trickster attitude of street artist Banksy, particularly in the latter’s documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. By the end of the film, Banksy leaves the audience, like Misty, unsure of where the art stops and the criticism begins.
The Misty born of the Trump Administration, however, is strikingly more anxious and concerned. His last two dropped albums came with a surprising lack of promotions and with an urgency familiar to troubled blue voters. Misty’s Pure Comedy is the maniacal response to the high-wattage political moment:
“Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy
Just wait until the part where they start to believe
They’re at the center of everything
And some all powerful being endowed this horror show with meaning.”
Tillman, at his bleakest, pulls back the curtain, accentuating the ridiculousness of his facade, while Misty appears to be most aware of his artifice, smoke, and mirrors — his alter ego as fabricated an image as any movie star.
“When I used to dream of sharing a marquee with Gillian Welch,” he said of his resident folk singing opener, “my name was a lot less stupid.” Tillman performed with the usual lush smoke and backlit animations that have become commonplace amongst a certain caliber of rock stardom, dressed in the perfect hue, or lack thereof, to match the purity his assumed title would suggest: a suit as white and pure as a virgin.
Though FJM is a distraction, and a compelling one at that, Tillman keeps us hungry with lyrics that are too pure to be witty, to honest to mock.
In “Please Don’t Die,” Misty seamlessly switches off cynical bastard and plays the role of the romantic, revealing a man so entrenched in love he must beg his lover to live. It is in Misty’s least clever moments that we remember the only way to stay human and whole in this strange world is to turn to love.
In Chris Willman’s review of Misty’s God’s Favorite Customer tour, Willman writes, “God’s Favorite Customer might show a man who has made a little more progress in coming to peace with where’s he’s been and a little more hope for where he’s going.”
God’s Favorite Customer is a step away from the post-apocalyptic rage in Pure Comedy, and a step closer to humanity. Each song on the quick 38 minute album reveals, not a clever diatribe, but a soliloquy to a softer, more vulnerable world. Though his despondency still reflects Misty’s deep sense of dissatisfaction, it glitters of hope and a desperate longing for love.
In “We’re Only People (and There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” Misty ends the album with a hopeful sense of community and the most important reason to take action — each other:
“I think the end of it all may look a lot like the beginning…
The company gets pretty thin
So we start to shed all our distinctions
So why not me?
Why not you?
Why not now?”
Courtney Prather is a writer and ocean lover. When she’s not working as a marketing professional, you can find her in the surf in Orange County. Keep up to date on new writing at courtprather.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @courtpanther.