Josh Tillman’s alter ego gazes inward and turns confessional on album four. By Alastair McKay
Including: Father John Misty, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Johnny Marr, Kamasi Washington, Natalie Prass
Questions, questions, so many questions. three verses into “Hangout At the Gallows”, the opening song on Father John Misty’s emetic sequel to
Pure Comedy, Mr tillman is lining them up like dominoes in a Cold War metaphor. “What’s your politics?” he croons, “What’s your religion?/What’s your intake, your reason for living?” An odd chorus for the first tune on a pop record, but that’s how it goes. there are 29 questions in total on the record, not counting repetitions. some of them occur in the course of tillman’s comic narratives – coming from the mouth of a cocktail barman in “Mr tillman” (“Would you like a Regalo on the patio?”) or the voice of noah (in “Hangout At the Gallows”), who calls to enquire: “Jesus, man, what did
you do?” some of the questions are aimed, in apparent exasperation, at the air (“Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?”). And then there are moments when tillman cuts through the static of his own dissonance and says it straight. “You’ve been hurt and I’ve been hurt,” he sings on “We’re only People (And there’s not Much Anyone Can Do About that)”, “but what do we do now?”
there were questions on tillman’s last album, Pure Comedy, too, of course. there was a rash of narrative eczema on “Ballad of A Dying Man”, and some reverse marketing on “the Memo”. But Pure Comedy was mostly declamatory, largely mad-as-hell, and almost entirely unapologetic. it was the sound of a man in a room, shouting at the jumbotron. the only time tillman engaged with the self-conscious intensity found on God’s Favorite Customer occurred on “A Bigger Paper Bag”; a bridge over narcissistic waters to the emotional mudflats on which the crooner now disports himself. “I’ve got the world by the balls,” he suggested then, “am I supposed to behave?” it’s possible, reading between the lipstick smears, that tillman has been juggling those balls over the past year while pondering this question.
to paraphrase noah, what do we know, and what do we think tillman has been up to? Well, looking at the available evidence, things both said and unsaid, it’s possible to put together a bruising chronology in which tillman’s marriage to his Honeybear, photographer emma elizabeth tillman, came under strain. tillman told Uncut a few months ago that the songs for this record were written during an intense six-week period, while he was
living in the Lafayette House hotel in New York in self-imposed exile “collecting misadventures”. The words poured out, he said, because they had to. The record, he suggested, is “rooted in something that happened last year that was… Well, my life blew up.”
That sounds both dramatic and fruitful, but let’s back up. The words poured out. Has there ever been a Father John Misty record on which the words did not gush as if from a ruptured hose? They were pretty hydrothermal on Pure Comedy, and – if you open the blinds and retune the television – it’s possible to view that record as a break-up album, too, with the world’s problems acting as a furious diversion. Ejaculating words is what Tillman does when he’s playing Misty for us. His life, his mind, his passions and his rage are all fair game. Motives don’t matter. What’s important is the thing he makes.
And here, the change is in the direction of Tillman’s gaze. On his last record, he was looking out, hollering into the void. Here, he is the vacuum, and the language – so cynical and unforgiving before – has softened into the uncertain stuff of the confessional, delivered with the gratitude of a man rescued from a current he thought he could control.
The music indulges this sense of tidal release, and the Father John Misty persona de-evolves slightly, not quite to the point of forgetting how to fake insincerity, but almost.
Regular producer Jonathan Wilson’s role is reduced, on account of him being on tour with Roger Waters, so it falls to Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado to scatter petals over Tillman’s unforgiving interview with himself. The singer has frivolously compared God’s Favorite Customer to Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, a record that served grief without a side salad. God’s
Favorite Customer isn’t quite that spartan. True, the songs rely on Tillman’s habit of exacting melodrama from the piano, but the backgrounds are an unclassifiable blend of lounge music and discrete flourishes of retro discord. It sounds like gospel music, with the object of faith being the wellbeing of Tillman’s psyche. When it’s glorious, it really is glorious. “Just Dumb Enough To Try” is Tillman’s “Candle In The Wind”, with the singer employing self-deprecation on the way to talking himself back into a romance. Elijah Thomson’s bass solo – assuming it is a bass solo – offers a note of enmity, while everything else – the cello, the Mellotron – aims to soothe. There’s ambiguity in the words, too, of course. Who really wants to hear their lover suggesting they are dumb enough to have another go?
Tillman’s narrator is more straightforwardly apologetic on “Please Don’t Die”, a heartbreaker about miscommunication. “Somebody stop this joyless joyride,” he croons, “I’m feeling
older than my 35 years.” And yet, the song is not entirely straightforward. It reads – though it doesn’t sound – as if the verses alternate between the singer and his worried lover; him confessing to “pointless benders with reptilian strangers”, her saying, “Honey, I’m worried about you.” But the heart of the song lies in the blurring of those viewpoints. And then, because emotions fluctuate and certainties dissolve, there is “The Palace”, a gorgeous little story wrapped in a mystery. It includes the line, “Last night I wrote a poem/I must have been in the poem zone,” which isn’t ideal, but there’s a swooning melody and a piano that tolls like John Donne’s clock on the misdeeds of a beached minstrel.
It’s not all maudlin. When it is, Tillman takes care to sugar the pill. The title track is an all-night drinking song, a tearstained ballad, and a rum rumination on the blank terror of loneliness. With Natalie Mering offering angelic backing vocals, and Beatlesy flourishes on the Mellotron, it sounds like a drunk man grasping a thistle as he tries to blag his way through the pearly gates. Jonathan Wilson’s guitar offers acidic asides as the tune smooches to the fade, ushering in the bleak beauty of “The Songwriter”. On this stark piano ballad, the singer sees himself through the eyes of a wounded lover, who has had enough of being turned into material. “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter?” Misty ponders, acting as a witness in his own prosecution. “Would you undress me repeatedly in public/To show how very noble and naked you can be?” There is little artifice here, no witty asides, no hiding in the wardrobe of the shapeshifting persona; just bloodshot eyes staring straight into un-dipped headlights. It’s blinding at times, and that’s what makes this journey round the perimeter of a bomb crater so exciting. In the end, Tillman learns enough about himself to think about starting over. That’s a kind of progress. It’s not the destination that matters, it’s being humble enough to ask for directions when you’re lost.