Quick backstory for the uninitiated: Father John Misty is the swaggering, hallucinogen-taking, loudmouthed alter ego of Josh Tillman, a persona that sprang to life from Tillman’s psyche after tripping on ayahuasca with a Canadian shaman. Sounds like a modern-day rock legend, but it’s true — or, maybe it’s not. That’s the essence of Father John Misty: Thanks to his wickedly sharp songwriting, his true thoughts and intentions are always padded by misdirection and deflection. He can sing you the sweetest melody you ever heard, only for you to later realize he was insulting you to your face.
Like with everything involving FJM, it was hard to predict if he would keep pushing the nihilist funnyman routine that defined 2015’s “I Love You, Honeybear” and last year’s “Pure Comedy,” or go somewhere else on his fourth record. Wisely, he’s chosen the latter route on “God’s Favorite Customer,” providing a needed comedown from the bleak absurdity of “Pure Comedy” and crafting perhaps his most concise and — shockingly — sincere collection of songs to date.
Written primarily during a moment of deep personal crisis, the album showcases straightforward, uncharacteristically vulnerable songs of heartbreak. Granted, there are still funny moments throughout — it’s hard not to chuckle when Tillman sings with misguided confidence, “I didn’t get invited, but I know where to go,” on the sleazy “Date Night” — but the album’s strongest points come when Tillman drops the act and takes a long, earnest look at both himself and the love he’s on the verge of losing forever. You feel Tillman’s dread and loneliness when he declares “I’m in over my head” on “The Palace.” You actually believe him when he begs for his love to stay on “Just Dumb Enough to Try.” Heck, you even buy that he’ll “take it easy with the morbid stuff” on “Please Don’t Die,” despite his not-so-cheery back catalog.
Self-examination isn’t new territory for Tillman, but rarely has he so openly dissected himself with such brutal honesty. On “The Songwriter,” he openly wonders what it must be like to see one’s personal turmoil become the fodder for a song (“What would it sound like if you were the songwriter/And you made your living off of me?”) with both empathy for his subject and profound regret that he didn’t consider that person’s feelings sooner. It’s a refreshing tonal shift, especially coming from a man famous for his verbal takedowns.
While less flashy than past records, “God’s Favorite Customer” works because Tillman spares the sarcasm, lets his guard down, and concedes that he’s just as lonely and fallible as the rest of us — or, maybe it’s Father John doing the confessing. It’s harder than ever to tell where Misty ends and Tillman begins, and that might be for the better.Robert Steiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.