Josh Tillman has been praying in public under his haha-just-goofing-doesn't-mean-anything-promise Father John Misty moniker for six years now, but never more openly than in his latest album, God's Favorite Customer. The confessional is waiting and there are 10 lush songs to get through owning all the ways he's made sacred love profane, with invitation for our souls to get naked, too. He's hurt his wife, Emma; he has hurt himself; and, Jesus, the Almighty, He won't leave Tillman the hell alone.
Another priestly sin-sick romantic confessing via art, Augustine of Hippo wrote, "You never go away from us, yet we have difficulty in returning to You. Come, Lord, stir us up and call us back. Kindle and seize us. Be our fire and our sweetness. Let us love. Let us run." Tillman is a man on the run.
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Growing up in an earnestly Evangelical Christian household, even in a Babylonian suburb like Rockville, Md., will break your brain in all kinds of ways when you try being an honest-to-God American consumer—double that when you become the consumed product. The man who would be Father John grew up with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs and eventually the good news of Bob Dylan, but not much music else; though one suspects occasionally the pop-folk of his parents' youth found its way onto the car stereo, too. Take a talented kid in that environment, and cue the unmistakable, inescapable worship-music styling of a lot of Tillman's opera. "We're Only People (And There's Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)" takes me straight back to (Southern Baptist) church.
Sure, his music is more sophisticated, genre-blending than a typical Sunday-morning band could dream of. But the tone of straight-to-the-heart ironic sincerity (or is it sincere irony?) that saturates it sounds an awful lot like a Sunday school kid's heartbreak when he grew up listening to Amy Grant and Keith Green and then abandons them. Josh may have ran away from that church home to Seattle in 2002, but it is clearly home.
The first foray as Father John Misty, 2012's Fear Fun, was an exorcism of Tillman's prior gig as drummer for the folk rock group Fleet Foxes. Putting aside childish things, or at least yuppy pretensions to preserving the counterculture, songs like "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" established FJM as a kind of self-loathing anti-folk minor prophet condemning himself and America for their whoring. "Jesus Christ, girl / I laid up for hours in a daze / Retracing the expanse of your American back / With Adderall and weed in my veins." It's ego calling out ego and that's the point. Then came I Love You, Honeybear in 2015, as the opportunity to love his wife laid his sins out on the table and made already-empty, godless but God-haunted Americana feel emptier. Tillman grabbed whatever bits of mercy he could find; as "Holy Shit" put it:
Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty
What's your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?
Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
What I fail to see is what that's gotta do
With you and me
Just last year Father John Misty pushed out the pedantic Pure Comedy. Politics has made America a psychic hellhole the last few years and Tillman lived somewhere near the bottom of it. The album suffered a little for that. He was pushy and obvious where he's usually subtle, an octave or two past parody of the clownishness and hysteria that had him so strung out and just crying right along with it. There's the gentle but bald sequel to John of Patmos's Apocalypse, "When The God of Love Returns There'll Be Hell to Pay," dialing Calvin's total depravity up to 11: "And the pale horse looks a little sick / Says, ‘Jesus, you didn't leave a whole lot for me / If this isn't hell already then tell me, what the hell is?'"
But dearly beloved, grace and peace to you, he's back. God's Favorite Customer reintegrates the fracturing Father John Misty of his prior albums. He's a Jonah on the run from Elohim, a husband trying to love his Honeybear, a real postmodern sonofabitch American all at the same time, and it works—there's been a great awakening. The album pretends to ease us in with a percussive but honey-toned dirge in "Hangout at the Gallows"; it's Tillman describing his own kind of crucifixion. "Jesus, man, what did you do?" and "Psychic terrorists / In the upper room"—the anguish of abandoned Christianity has left him treading water, a faithless Peter bleeding out with what is actually only one question for himself and for us: "What's your politics? / What's your religion?" The hipster-praise-band offertory hymn "We're Only People (And There's Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)" makes the other bookend, with a T.S. Eliot-esque inversion of "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," in "I think the end of it all may look a lot like the beginning / But passed around from hand to hand / Screaming for no particular reason."
The body of the album gives us an impressionistic portrait of recent life in the Tillman household, which has been rough. "Mr. Tillman" is a throwback, a surreal buzzed-out session of listening in on a solipsistic breakdown. "Date Night" is jaunty and fun, goofy and casual, like taking a road trip in a silver Airstream that's also a juke-boxed greasy diner, to be sung and shimmied to with Mick Jagger expression. "I also want to vanquish evil but my mojo's gone" and "I'm the second coming / Oh, I'm the last to know / I didn't get invited but I know where to go." It's Emma Tillman's St. Monica moment in "Please Don't Die," her husband singing her pleadings and warnings to himself, that he stop "All these pointless benders / With reptilian strangers."
An album highlight, "Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of them All" sounds like Glen Campbell's "I'm Not Going to Miss You," if Glen Campbell sang about a marriage on the rocks because of two or three too many acid trips and not the ravages of Alzheimer's. The eponymous song, "God's Favorite Customer," is Padre Misty's parable of the Prodigal Son. Our hero's been profligate, and knows it, and the question is, is it grace or judgment next? "I'm out here testing the maxim / That all good things have to stop / The bar closes at 5 / But the big man is just opening shop," and "I was God's favorite customer / But now I'm in trouble." Like the hanging on the tree Christology of the album's opening, this dying son of man invokes the Psalm with, "Speak to me / Won't you speak, sweet angel? / Don't you remember me? / I was God's favorite customer," his "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
To be an ex-Evangelical is to be still defined by Evangelical Christianity, and Father John Misty has been trying to figure out where that leaves him since before Josh Tillman took that title. That search has stripped him of illusions not just about himself but about society around him, and each release seems to indicate a further revelation. God's Favorite Customer might show a man who has made a little more progress in coming to peace with where's he's been and a little more hope for where he's going. At its liveliest the album is the Vacation Bible School Musical Theater skit from depressed hell, and in its softest piano-ballads it sets aside the usual burlesque to instead undress medically—perhaps to prepare a heart for surgery. Who'll be the surgeon, we all want to know. To make the end look like the beginning, Augustine said in another part of his Confessions, "Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee."