Prologue: Honeybear, Honeybear, Honeybear, Ooo-ooh
When Josh Tillman dazzled the world of indie folk-rock and beyond with his second LP as Father John Misty, “I Love You, Honeybear,” in early 2015, we marveled at what a revelation it was. Here was this conventionally attractive, honey-voiced, witty and clever new rock star for the 21st century, who just one album earlier on debut “Fear Fun” had been singing of psychedelic-fueled adventures with a variety of substances and women in debaucherous California (after leaving behind his Seattle-based career as the drummer of Fleet Foxes and his gloomy folk albums as J. Tillman), now embracing true love, monogamy, and marriage, with a collection of songs that were at turns self-deprecating, snarky, sexy, and devastatingly honest. Josh had just married photographer Emma Elizabeth Garr, whom he met in Los Angeles’ mythical Laurel Canyon, and the album chronicled the attendant mania, jealousy, uncertainty, and neuroses that can come with finding your soulmate.
While infinite numbers of modern man-children — handsome or not, talented or not, famous or not — shy away from terrifying, grown-up commitment, here was Mr. Tillman, someone who the world was gladly offering the opportunity of doing drugs and hooking up with endless ladies across the world for the rest of his life, boldly eschewing the sensory pleasures of the rock star lifestyle for true love — and making a one-of-a-kind musical testament to human emotion in the process. Josh even immortalized the both of them with Stacey Rozich’s illustration on the cover of “Honeybear,” with Emma as the serene mother and he as the literal baby at her breast, embodying the themes of connection, dependency, and his own “horny man-child” immaturity that he self-deprecatingly explored in the album.
Jeez, I thought at the time — if they ever break up, that’s gonna be one hell of an album. Josh’s ability to ride the highs and lows of the human experience, with brilliant, unique lyricism matched with music that echoes the emotions at hand, means that whatever he is feeling and thinking about at the time is going to come out full force into his music. And now, welcome to Hell, on “God’s Favorite Customer.” Specifically, Josh’s own personal hell, as he wrestles with marital discord and turns it into ten of his most poppy — and depressing — songs yet.
Are You Ready to Cry?
“God’s Favorite Customer” features concise track lengths, Beatles-esque vibes, upbeat rhythms, and lyrics so sad that I challenge you to listen to the whole thing without tears flowing at least a little. (Josh knows this — he wrote the damn thing, after all — and so some of the merchandise for this album cycle features teardrops dropping down from his movie star visage: the first Father John Misty album featuring his face rather than artwork. Is it a visual commentary on the fact he is more personal and vulnerable than ever on this record? Maybe.)
This may be Father John Misty’s own “Blood On The Tracks,” to reference Bob Dylan’s classic after his divorce from the mother of his children, Sara Dylan. It is also reminiscent of Islands’ “A Sleep & A Forgetting,” in which Nick Thorburn (formerly of The Unicorns) worked through his post-divorce despair in the form of aurally pleasant indie pop tunes. While there may not be a divorce in “God’s Favorite Customer,” Josh’s heart — and along with it, the listener’s — is clearly residing somewhere in a wood chipper. Beyond the obvious John Lennon musical influence on these tracks, it’s clear that this was Misty’s own “Lost Weekend,” to reference Lennon’s notorious period of creativity and alcoholism that went with his period of separation from Yoko Ono (and while Lennon’s lost weekend involved moving from New York to LA, Misty did the opposite, moving from the West Coast to Manhattan’s Lafayette House for two months).
“God’s Favorite Customer” is a devastatingly sad album. It’s hard to overstate this fact. “Real Love Baby,” this does not contain. (I mean, “Real Love Baby” was never actually on an album, but you know.) Not that Josh’s lyricism has ever been all that light-hearted, but on this, his sadness, uncertainty, and raw vulnerability come through on every song. If you’ve ever had your heart broken, prepare to be triggered, hard. “God’s Favorite Customer” deals in the icy devastation and surreal loneliness of losing your best friend — or losing the ability to talk to them during estrangement, or losing them because of what they did, or what you did — something that Josh captures rather accurately, albeit through his unique lens of being a well-known indie music personality with a cache of drugs, designer clothes, and private hotels to assuage his heartbreak. (Not to diminish it, though— because nothing really makes a difference when you’re in that state. And fellow singer Jason Isbell was indeed concerned about him.)
I suppose we could remember, as my fiction teachers had to continually remind us in my MFA program when everyone used their lives as fodder for their writing, that you’re not really supposed to take any first-person writing as being from the point of view of the writer themselves. But — this doesn’t seem to be anything but an undeniably personal album. If his previous work, “Pure Comedy,” was almost exclusively outward-facing, he’s turned that laser focus inward on his own broken (or bruised) heart.
A funny thing about the album — maybe the only funny thing, as Josh’s signature humor is mostly covered with a thick layer of depression in these songs — is that musically, it is probably his most accessible effort yet, even including “Fear Fun.” Clocking in at only 38 minutes, casual fans might see it as a welcome antidote to 2017’s “Pure Comedy,” which was basically the “Ulysses” of the Father John Misty canon thus far — an epic, dense aural novel tackling the foibles of humanity. While the album was beautiful and timely in the era of President Cheeto, it was obvious that many listeners yearned for the easy, fun persona of Big Sur-era Misty, sex and drugs and rock n roll in the nostalgic California sunshine. Those fans might get be getting their wish of pleasant-sounding pop songs from the witty indie provocateur, but as Josh had mocked himself and listeners in “Leaving LA,” “this new shit really kinda makes me wanna die.” Be careful what you wish for.
If anything, “God’s Favorite Customer” proves that Josh Tillman is not going to let you pigeonhole him or his creativity. The short release time between “Pure Comedy” and “God’s Favorite Customer” is nearly unheard of for a big-name indie star like him, besides maybe, like, Beach House. But we know that he is continually songwriting, and the obvious emotional devastation of his lost weekend meant that he needed to get these songs out as soon as possible, laying them down with today’s go-to indie producer Jonathan Rado of Foxygen back in LA. The result is an album that doesn’t feel rushed, but urgent — simultaneously lush and fragile.
“What’s your reason for living?”: The songs of “God’s Favorite Customer”
The album certainly doesn’t skimp on allusions to death and violence, whether literal or emotional. Album opener “Hangout at the Gallows” is a quintessential Father John Misty track, an ideal setting of the tone for his heartache album. It’s heavy on the Lennon vibes and features a perfectly curated balance of instrumentation from brilliantly paranoid orchestration (echoes of “Pure Comedy”) to Beatles-esque guitar licks, climaxes, dissonance, and dramatic pauses.
Whereas “Pure Comedy” was a complex exploration of man-made systems of control, here Josh is simply, plaintively howling into falsetto — “What’s your POLITICS? What’s your RELIGION? What’s your intake, your reason for LIVING?” Maybe he’s tired of talking, or pontificating—so he’s just getting to the core of existence, life and death, now. It absolutely demands high-volume listening. “I’m treading water as I bleed to death,” he spits, among his references to drowning, hanging, and stabbing, which are probably to be taken both literally and figuratively. Good times. It’s probably my favorite track on the album, as its dramatic complexity ranks up there with the absolute best of the Father John Misty canon thus far.
“Mr. Tillman,” the album’s lead single, featured a very Misty™ rollout with a comedic green-screen video, which was then replaced with a cinematic film that cut much closer to the core of the album’s actual themes — living in a hotel and dealing with a David Lynch meets “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” meets “Groundhog Day” existence. The dark humor and relatively upbeat style, albeit in a minor key and with disorienting levels of instrumentation and unintelligible voices in the background, was a bit of a red herring for how dark the album would ultimately be. It’s clear that the chorus of “I’m feeling good, damn I’m feeling so fine” is exclusively the product of substances and not his actual mental state.
The songs “Just Dumb Enough To Try” and “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” co-released as the album’s second single, hint at the real trouble in paradise. They’re the sequels to the idealistic yet uncertain themes of “Honeybear,” showing that yes, indeed, true love doesn’t actually mean never having to say you’re sorry. If anything, “God’s Favorite Customer” is about that part of being in love that you fear but don’t want to believe can be true: it really can all come crashing down around your head. “Just Dumb Enough” is Josh’s admittance that while he had created a masterpiece testament to love on the earlier album, it was no guarantee of smooth sailing in their actual relationship. “Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?” in “Disappointing Diamonds” hits like a gut punch after “Honeybear” had been one of the most important indie albums, at least to me, of the past few years. (I’m out of touch with Christian-related culture though, and didn’t realize “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was also a 1965 movie about Jesus Christ.)
While “Date Night” is an upbeat and sexy jam, it is also unhinged and lyrically disconnected. It evokes getting fucked up and hitting on people from the depths of heartbreak. Or attempting to rip off his own “Fear Fun” and mostly failing. “I also wanna vanquish evil, but my mojo is gone,” he admits. Trying to move on when you’re still in love just doesn’t fucking work. Benders and hallucinations have always been part of the general Father John Misty mythology, but this party, at least for Josh, isn’t fun anymore. But compulsively, he continues.
I found myself getting very emotional upon the first few listens through this album, particularly when confronting songs like “Please Don’t Die,” which deals in suicidal ideation — never easy to listen to from your favorite artists and people. He pleads “somebody stop this joyless joyride, I’m feeling older than my 35 years,” tired of “pointless benders with reptilian strangers” (another “Fear and Loathing” echo). The entire Father John Misty world that he has created is nothing if he doesn’t have Emma — which is illustrated by how she saves him from the underworld of despair and depression in the official video for the song.
“The Palace” is a theatrical, raw echo of New York City, the streets and the hotel where Josh wrote this album. “I’m in over my head” is a quiet, plaintive, devastating refrain, ending with the sound of rain falling in the background. While Josh is Father John Misty rather than it being a “character” as is often stated, and Josh used to write dark folk songs, I’m not sure Father John Misty has ever been this quiet before. Maybe he never had a reason to be, after he had “the world by the balls” and his true love by his side.
But the quietness of “The Palace” is somehow outdone by his heartbreaking vulnerability on “The Songwriter,” where he contemplates a role reversal of his life’s calling and career with Emma. With just a piano and Josh’s golden voice, he seems to possibly be regretting the effects of laying out their relationship for the world to see…while continuing to do so. But I guess he doesn’t have many other options. To be “The Songwriter” is his blessing and his curse.
Weyes Blood, aka Natalie Mering, should win some sort of award for the haunting perfection of her backup vocals on the title track, “God’s Favorite Customer.” It sends shivers down my spine every time. I hope he finds some way to replicate this in concert, unless he’s bringing her back on the road as he did with the second leg of the “Pure Comedy” release tour. While the phrase “God’s favorite” doesn’t hold much resonance with me as I was raised by parents like Josh — exiles from organized religion — it seems to be Josh realizing he was given everything (on the back of his own brilliant and evolved talent) but nothing is certain in life, and that higher powers such as love and connection are necessary to make it through.
And while Josh and Emma are still together, presumably having achieved a reconciliation at least partially due to his revelations from his lost weekend, there is no real light at the end of this tunnel. The album’s conclusion, “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” is the thesis of “Pure Comedy” boiled down to humanist resignation as he reflects on himself and his relationship. The chorus comes from an older demo, “I Hope My Friends Are Somewhere Smiling,” which also includes the line “I hear you hang out by the gallows, I know those guys get an early start,” which he also utilized almost verbatim on this album. According to Soundcloud, it was an early “Honeybear”-era demo, and according to Josh, was apparently “a song I’ll probably never put on an album.” It indicates that Josh had to do what many of us do when confronted with experiences that throw us off balance — go back to the beginning to find what will help make sense of the present and future.
John and Yoko of 2018?
It’s hard to anticipate what the fan and critical reception to this album will be, and additionally, how it will age in the Father John Misty canon. It’s certain to fuel a lot of gossip-y speculation about Josh’s private life — and it’s tough to reconcile respect for his privacy with the fact he is laying a lot of emotions bare on the table, even without many specifics about the estrangement or issues at hand. I guess that’s what he’s getting at with “The Songwriter” — music is his life’s work and it will always be undeniably personal.
Maybe like John and Yoko, the mythology had begun to weigh too much on the humans in the actual relationship. Maybe “I Love You, Honeybear” was a lot of pressure to put on a new marriage — piling on musical immortality, critical acclaim, international media attention, and the rock n roll lifestyle (“on the road again, for months at a time”), not to mention frank allusions to their sexual relationship and mental health. Yoko, like Emma Tillman, was an artist, but how to compete with the rock star in modern culture? Emma remains a mostly private and mysterious figure, beyond her photography work and her collaborations with her husband (and her appearances in their friend Lana Del Rey’s social media posts), and that is something I find myself interested in from “Honeybear” through “God’s Favorite Customer” — we see how Josh interprets her, but what does she really think about all this?
I am also curious to see how he will present this next chapter of their story to the world as he continues on his endless touring. When I chatted with him before his recent solo acoustic show in Bloomington, Indiana, he said he wasn’t ready to be doing many interviews about this (or perhaps just in general), for a while. But when he played “I Went To The Store One Day,” the tearjerker closer of “Honeybear,” after the line “I never thought it’d be so simple,” he slipped in a quiet addendum — “and it really wasn’t.” It was a crack in the façade of his marriage story that he’s been touring on since 2015. It will be interesting to see whether he will continue to let the personal dimension of the songs speak for themselves, or if he will be ready to expound as time goes on.
The Continuing Humanist Work of Father Josh Tillman
“God’s Favorite Customer” presents the world with an important next chapter in understanding Josh Tillman and the ethos of Father John Misty. From rock star to public intellectual, from taunter of the media to questioner of religion, from sardonic pop song writer to painfully fragile artist, through his music as Father John Misty, Josh has tackled the world, society, and himself.
“God’s Favorite Customer” is the inverse, and continuation, of his love story in “Honeybear,” and while the darkness is sad, it’s undeniably human, and in some ways, a reassuring balance to the larger-than-life love story and grandiosity of “Honeybear.” No love story is perfect — even the really good ones. And it’s not just about him and Emma, it’s about what it means to keep growing and learning, even when you’re devastated and want to give up. Josh has always been more self-aware than people seem able to give him credit for (maybe if he didn’t have a perfect face and voice he would have more schlubby indie rock credibility?), and he is big enough and mature enough to admit that he knew nothing about love or how it would all work out for him.
Josh Tillman is operating as one of our culture’s greatest humanist philosophers as he shares creative perceptions of his lived experience, no matter how beautiful or painful they might be, which in turn translate into universal human truths. Even if the world isn’t quite ready to be fully receptive to the brilliant point of view of a depressed, anxious guy who looks like a movie star and doesn’t shy away from sharing his loquacious opinions, if “music is the New Literature,” as Hunter S. Thompson once postulated about Dylan, Josh’s creative and humanist contributions may ultimately outshine his beautiful voice and songwriting.
Maybe Josh Tillman himself is the greatest story ever told. I can’t wait to see how he continues to evolve.