Review: Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer

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After tackling the concept of the human condition in his last album, Father John Misty shines a brutal spotlight his own psyche in exasperating and heart-wrenching fashion.

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The rumblings that indie messiah Father John Misty – known as Josh Tillman by day – was releasing a new album this year at first left me slightly concerned. Just a year after the monumental Pure Comedy, it seemed unlikely that Tillman would’ve had enough time to give it the polish that the follow-up to such an excellent album would deserve. And to further tangle the album in uncertainty, the news emerged that the album was written during a time of personal crisis for Tillman – “my life blew up”, he said. Surely these factors would have a detrimental effect on this new project, but Misty somehow remains as engrossing to watch as ever before.

The previous three outings under the Father John Misty moniker have all had very defined themes, and God’s Favorite Customer is no exception. Just as Tillman’s comments prior to its release suggested, this is a gritty heartbreak album, tackling betrayal, isolation, and redemption. The songs are morbid and moving, as you see the figure who proudly diagnosed the world’s ills on his last album struggle to save his marriage. The dry wit that soaked through his other albums is almost absent, replaced with the desperation of a man whose life is “on the straits”.

Tillman presents these themes cohesively across a handful of different styles: you have your upbeat, vaguely sarcastic folk-rock numbers in the vein of ‘Real Love Baby’ – notably ‘Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All’ and ‘Mr. Tillman’. You have the ‘True Affection’-esque electronic track (“Date Night”), and the piano ballads, including the potent ‘The Songwriter’. In other words, this is an album that treads familiar sonic ground, but the attention is held resolutely by Tillman’s always-exceptional lyrics and the unflinching exposure of his inner turmoil.

This is most keenly felt in the tracks ‘Just Dumb Enough to Try’, ‘Please Don’t Die’, and’The Palace’. Magnifying Tillman’s sense of vulnerability, ‘The Palace’ has Father John lament his inability to support his wife – “Maybe I’ll get a pet/Learn how to take care of someone else”. The gut-punch of ‘Please Don’t Die’ puts listeners in the perspective of Tillman’s wife, Emma, as she wonders what dreadful state he is likely in. It also soberly deals with depression, noting that Tillman had wandered through this part of his life “thinking that I might end it”. And with ‘Just Dumb Enough to Try’, Misty croons over a rich instrumental that he’s “just dumb enough to try/to keep you in my life a little while longer”. Cynical to the last, and having railed against the entire global system in Pure Comedy, his greatest act of disbelief is to doubt his own ability to keep his relationship together.

A big question hanging over the album was how it would compare in terms of production to Pure Comedy, Misty’s most elaborate project to date. This was off-putting to folk purists, but they can rest assured that God’s Favorite Customer dispenses with excessive regalia in favour of more controlled compositions. Nonetheless, the soundscapes are vividly textured, with cellos, organs and horns rattling across Tillman’s pained voice. The album is strongly reticent of John Lennon’s debut solo album, Plastic Ono Band, in production and soul-searching song themes. The title track sounds like the cousin to its near namesake “God”, the piano ringing out against listless, thumping drums. It is truly chilling stuff, without even mentioning Natalie Merring’s sublime backing vocals.

John Lennon was inspired by Primal Scream Therapy in the creation of his album, a psychiatric approach that advocates the re-experience of traumatic events in order to come to terms with them. In essence, Father John Misty has come through with the same thing here. Delving deep into his experiences, he pulls from within a set of ten gripping songs, where the heartbreak and despondence is well and truly palpable.

God’s Favorite Customer is available now via Bella Union.

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Bailey studies Modern History and Politics, and spends his free time wishing the university offered a Beatles degree.

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