Barely over a year after he brought us the portentous Pure Comedy, Josh Tillman is releasing his fourth album as Father John Misty, God's Favorite Customer, and the hastiness shows in the music. Where each of the previous three Father John Misty albums had their own unique stylistic thrusts, God's Favorite Customer—whose very title reads like a blithe self-parody of Pure Comedy's grand thesis on religion, consumerism, and VR porn—feels muddled and indistinct. This could be partially attributed to its overabundance of co-producers, both new (Foxygen's Jonathan Rado) and familiar (frequent Tillman collaborator Jonathan Wilson). Had it appeared on 2015's I Love You, Honeybear, “Just Dumb Enough to Try” might have been rendered in the over-the-top, half-satirical crooner style that defined that album; here, it's caught halfway between that approach and Pure Comedy's stately style, resulting in a song that's as emotionally muted as it is generically arranged.
Though Tillman portrayed his love for his wife, photographer Emma Tillman, in starry-eyed fashion on I Love You, Honeybear, the romance-focused songs on his latest album are prickly and cynical to the point of being off-putting. Despite the schmaltziness that the maudlin chord changes and billowing melody of “Just Dumb Enough to Dry” might suggest, the lyrics are anything but sentimental: “But I'm just dumb enough to try/To keep you in my life/For a little while longer.” On “Disappointed Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” he sneers: “Like a constant twitching in my eye/This love of ours will never die.” While that song features several acidic twists on typical metaphors for everlasting love, Tillman doesn't sound heartbroken—just bitter.
Josh Tillman too often feels hopelessly lost inside his own head on God's Favorite Customer.
The singer-songwriter is more sympathetic when tackling his struggles with mental health. Indeed, God's Favorite Customer hits its stride with its most emotionally naked pair of songs. The first of these, “Please Don't Die,” is a pleading, soulful campfire ballad sung in the second person to, presumably, himself. It reveals just how dire things got for Tillman as he embarked on “All these pointless benders/With reptilian strangers.” The next track, “The Palace,” is a stark piano ballad in which Tillman recounts a two-month period spent in a hotel. “I'm in over my head,” he admits on the song, his voice, usually so smooth and authoritative, quavering with pain. The flipside to these songs is the insufferable, po-faced martyrdom of “The Songwriter,” on which Tillman poses as a “tortured artist” with all too much self-awareness.
The verve, eccentric humor, and stylistic panache one can usually expect from Father John Misty is confined to one song on God's Favorite Customer, “Date Night,” a psych-pop banger bursting with catchy falsetto hooks, retro ear candy, and absurdist, quintessentially Tillman lines like “I got your number from that sign in the lawn/I also want to vanquish evil but my mojo is gone.” Covering the same two-month hotel bender that “The Palace” did, but this time with quirk and Tillman's fondness for the hyper-meta, the baroque-style lead single “Mr. Tillman” is one of his catchiest songs. As eminently hummable as it is, though, there's not much substance to it—no differentiation between the verses and choruses, and lyrics designed more to provoke a few chuckles than thought or reflection. “I'm living on a cloud on an island in my mind,” he sings as the same melodic motif repeats yet again. Like the rest of the album, Tillman just spins his wheels, hopelessly lost inside his own head.