Atwood Magazine’s writers break down Father John Misty’s fourth album God’s Favorite Customer, discussing the Father John Misty persona, Josh Tillman, and the blurring line between the two.
Featured here are writers Kelly Wynne, Jimmy Crowley, Mariel Fechik, and Carmen Chan, with Editor-in-Chief Mitch Mosk hosting.
Mitch Mosk: To start off, how would you describe your relationship with Father John Misty’s music?
Mariel Fechik: I think I have a love / hate relationship with his music. When friends first showed me his music in college, I was immediately drawn in by the ‘60s-esque sound and his voice. Over the years I’ve developed a dislike for the persona he projects (or maybe that’s just him) but I can never deny how good the music is, even when I want to.
Carmen Chan: Father John Misty is one of my current favorite singer-songwriters, mostly because of his witty lyrics and distinctive point of view. I really enjoy listening to his previous releases – he crafts great albums. I’ve also had the chance to catch him live in concert, and his music definitely translates in a live setting. He’s an engaging performer with great stage presence, punctuating his setlist with funny banter.
Jimmy Crowley: I was a little late to the party on Father John Misty. I’d tried to listen to him after I Love You, Honeybear, but I didn’t listen in the right way. I was far too passive and didn’t get it. I didn’t listen to Pure Comedy until about a month after it came out, and I started giving his music attentive listens, and everything clicked. I fell in love with both of those albums, and I’d been enthralled with anything I could find about FJM and Josh Tillman. I love the snide, ironic persona, but I also think that behind all that sarcasm, there is plenty of truth. The Misty character may be off-putting to some, but I think that it’s a way to share some real anxieties he faces. Honeybear makes plenty of dark commentary on relationships but it also shows a real way that love can feel, and you do get a sense he is infatuated with his now-wife. Comedy is similar. He’s scoffing at humanity and press and religion, but he’s expressing fears of heading into a dystopia.
Kelly Wynne: I have always appreciated Father John Misty, but haven’t ever been a diehard listener. For maybe the past two years, he’s found a way onto most of my playlists, but I don’t know every deep cut. I appreciate him for his sarcastic approach and comments on modern society. I find it entertaining and refreshing, though he can come across as an asshole. I think it’s what makes his music charming in an out-of-the-spotlight way. He seems like a real, fed up guy. So, in short, I think I am drawn to his music for the message more than anything.
What have been your favorite songs or aspects of Father John Misty’s music in the past?
Kelly: I am most familiar with Pure Comedy. I became dedicated to following him when I heard “Total Entertainment Forever.” I thought it was a brilliant expression of our society in a very unique way. It was then I began to dig into the intensity and whimsical air of his lyricism. I find that the most appealing. He’s straightforward, but ridiculously sarcastic. “Mr. Tillman” is another one of my favorite songs pre-the full release of God’s Favorite Customer. It tells a bizarre, personal story that I feel describes his personality and writing style, regardless of the truth or fiction behind it.
Jimmy: Persona and lyrics. I also like how quickly he can go from something sarcastic or mean to something really honest and vulnerable. Like in “When the God of Love Returns” he can go from a lyric like “try something less ambitious to next time you get bored” to “to create something out of nothing seems like someone else I know,” which I think is something that rings true for any artist in any medium.
Kelly: I agree with that, James. I honestly didn’t pay too much attention to that seriousness in past albums. It wasn’t until this album was released that I realized the depth of his lyrics. I previously had tunnel vision on his persona rather than the vulnerability he can present.
Carmen: “Chateau Lobby #4” was the song that got me hooked on his music, and I Love You, Honeybear is the album that I’ve listened to the most. The intro to “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” also never fails to make me sit up and take notice. His lyrical style definitely stands out for me. some of his verses are so detailed and personal to the point of oversharing, especially when it comes to lyrics concerning his relationship with his wife.
Mariel: My favorite song of his has always been “I’m Writing a Novel” from Fear Fun, because it reminds me so much of The Beatles’ “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” There’s such a warmth to his voice, and such an air of melodrama – that I, again, both hate and love.
Kelly: “I’m Writing A Novel” is revolutionary and I adore it! That was the first song I’d heard of his that fully caught my attention.
What is your initial reaction to God’s Favorite Customer?
Carmen: I wasn’t quite sure how he was going to record a follow-up to Pure Comedy, which was such an ambitious record thematically. I really enjoyed the singles he dropped, especially the neurotic lyrics on “Mr. Tillman” and the accompanying music video. I also thought it was really funny when he made memes using the album cover in reaction to the album leaking online prematurely.
Kelly: My initial reaction was that this is something real. The sarcasm was not as accessible. The melodies tended to fall on the ballad/dramatic side. It sounded similar to that of his past, but it made me sit back in shock wondering what he’s recently gone through that made him write some of these songs. I had a thought initially that said, “This sounds like what depression feels like,” and I think that came from the gravity of some of the more vulnerable moments. I don’t think it’s a surprising collection melodically, but lyrically, it’s something really grounding and honest.
Mariel: My first reaction was that there’s a vulnerability to this album. His arrogance is there in full force, as usual, but there are moments where it feels like you can peer around the smokescreen to something more genuine. But then again, that could be put on as well.
Carmen: I totally agree with Kelly and Mariel on that front. On first listen, I thought sonically it seemed similar to his previous output, but was really moved when I read more into the lyrics, especially on deeper cuts like “The Palace.”
Jimmy: I went from really excited first hearing “Mr. Tillman” (because I love that song for the same reasons Kelly listed above) to a little worried when the next songs were released that the album would be a huge departure in style to not really being able to dive into it in the midst of the Kanye release. Thus, I didn’t really enjoy what I heard, but listening today, I definitely enjoy it more and think that it does have a few of the aspects I like about FJM with a little less persona than I would’ve liked.
Kelly: I agree with James here – there’s less of a persona than I was expecting, and it was an initial disappointment. This feels like his way of saying, “Hey, I deal with real things too. It’s not all comedy.” And I can respect that, though it’s not what I expected.
Carmen: Yes, I also went through a similar situation as James with the Kanye West album being released on the same day. It was overshadowed in that regard and I was more compelled to listen to that first.
Jimmy: I think that sonically might be one front I disagree on; I think that there is less emphasis on his vocals on this album, which may be a product of it being a more serious and vulnerable record.
Mr. Tillman good to see you again
there’s a few outstanding charges
just before we check you in
let’s see here, you left your passport in the mini fridge
and a message with the desk says here the picture isn’t his
and oh just a reminder about our policy
don’t leave your mattress in the rain
if you sleep on the balcony
OK, did you and your guests have a pleasant stay?
what a beautiful tattoo that young man had on his face
oh, will you need a driver out to Philly?
Jason Isbell’s here as well and he seemed a little worried about you
Between the self-critical “Mr. Tillman,” the intimately vulnerable title track, and songs in-between, God’s Favorite Customer feels incredibly self-aware. Still, it seems like many of Father John Misty’s frustrations stem from pre-existing woes – societal disconnect and so forth.
Mariel: Definitely. It’s like this meta-meta-self-awareness that kind of makes my head hurt if I think about it for too long (laughs). That’s one of the things that’s always bothered me most about him. He’s talented enough to write about anything, but he chooses to wield this bizarre brand of armchair philosophy as an almost weapon against his listeners. Is he trying to alienate them? Or is he hoping to find the people just like him, the arrogant nihilists who will take him ultra-seriously?
Kelly: I like that point, Mariel. It’s hard to decipher if that’s just how he is or if it’s a spiteful thing. Either way, I think it does set him apart, and him message follows that persona. Well, until now. Now it seems like the makeup has been washed off and the philosophy has become more identifiable to the general public.
Carmen: I agree with Mariel. To me, that’s half the fun of his music and stage persona, trying to figure out if he’s being 100% serious or pulling a fast one on all of us. I try not to think about it too much, haha.
What, if any, is this record’s overall theme or message? In other words, what is your takeaway?
Mariel: I think my biggest takeaway is a general sense of weariness. Songs like “Please Don’t Die” and “We’re Only People” sound exhausted. And I think that’s really interesting.
Kelly: My takeaway is that Father John Misty is a real guy past the persona. He’s dealing with, or writing about, some major depression. From problems with himself to distance from his wife, it’s all clear and open in a way that leaves no room for comedy. Some of the lyrics are devastating. It feels like a coming of self, a moment in which he felt free enough to connect with that deeper voice away from the sarcasm. It’s like a class clown returning home after school to a broken family. It’s the sides no one has seen because he hasn’t fully allowed it without comedic distraction.
Jimmy: I definitely agree with Kelly here. I believe I read somewhere that this was written over a couple of weeks where Tillman was living in a hotel, separated from his wife. I feel like this is something of a record about alienation and celebrity. There’s songs like “Date Night” and mr. Tillman” that poke at that complex, but I also think some of the songs express real problems that he probably faced in his relationship like “Please Don’t Die” or “Disappointing Diamonds.”
Carmen: Overall, the record seems to be the yin to I Love You, Honeybear‘s yang, detailing some of his marital woes in the years since that album was released. On many of the tracks, his wife and their relationship serve as his muses, which Father John Misty pointedly addresses on the track The Songwriter. He does seem a lot more dejected than in his first two albums, perhaps on par with Pure Comedy but singing about more personal issues on this album.
Do you find yourself coming back to any songs in particular?
Jimmy: Upon further listening, there are a few. I like the title track, “The Songwriter,” “Mr. Tillman” and “Please Don’t Die.”
Mariel: I haven’t gotten a chance to re-listen yet, but I feel like “The Palace” and “Disappointing Diamonds” will be my first go-to’s. There’s something very nostalgic about both of them to me, whether it’s the John Lennon wannabe vibe or the chord progressions. I love his falsetto on the “I’m in over my head” lines on “The Palace.” It’s a departure from his usual tone.
Carmen: “Just Dumb Enough to Try” and “The Palace” are the two tracks that I’ve been replaying. They’re great ballads – I agree with Mariel! That’s my favorite part of the track!
Kelly: “Please Don’t Die” is my absolute favorite on the album. It’s heartbreaking, but such a real expression of mental health and relationships. I think it’s beautiful.
For me, “Mr. Tillman” is my favorite for its warmth, clever storytelling, and conciseness. It’s a fun song that captures some deeper, darker reflections of the self. Meanwhile, I can’t help but be drawn to the opening lyrics in “The Songwriter”: “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter, and you made your living off of me?” What I like the most about Father John Misty’s music is that it makes you think. But what is he trying to make us think about?
Mariel: I’m not honestly sure. I think maybe it’s again some attempt at meta-criticism, but I’d have to listen again to really see it. Maybe he’s trying to put the onus on the listener.
Kelly: I think that’s the thing about his music and his cryptic cynicism / personality. It’s vague enough and weird enough to mean something different to different people. That question could take a person’s mind in so many different directions.
Jimmy: I think that “The Songwriter” is this album’s “Leaving LA” and that’s sort of like the line where he says “a 13 verse chorus-less diatribe.” It’s a little ironic that he starts another song about his wife with those lines.
Carmen: On this album, I’m not sure if he’s really forcing us to analyze aspects of the human condition and our society (that was blatantly obvious on Pure Comedy). Maybe he’s just treating songwriting as a form of therapy, putting his thoughts and feelings into music in order to make more sense of everything. Even the rollout and the promotion for this album was more understated than that of Pure Comedy.
Kelly: I agree with Carmen. I think with God’s Favorite Customer he put less thought into making a point and put more energy into releasing his own thoughts.
There’s no denying how much effort Tillman puts into his lyrics. What do you think of God’s Favorite Customer from a musical standpoint?
Kelly: I think it’s pretty predictable for him. That being said, I’m still not tired of it. The only song that struck me as too repetitive was the opening track “Hangout at the Gallows.” It wasn’t a great opener, in my opinion, because it set me up to believe this album would be exactly what we’ve already heard from him.
Mariel: Father John Misty has never been someone that has really stretched his own musical boundaries, but I don’t know that I necessarily mind that. There’s a comfort to coming back to something new of his, because I always know what I can expect. This album definitely puts emphasis on the power ballad, and I love his use of piano on almost every song.
Carmen: To me, it’s a lot less lush than his previous efforts, which puts his lyrics center stage with nowhere to hide. I thought that it was an interesting parallel with his album art. His first three album covers are all detailed illustrations, but on this album, it’s just a portrait of him. But I agree with Kelly and Mariel in that I found the music slightly predictable.
Kelly: Carmen, I didn’t even realize that about the covers. You’re so right. That, in itself, is a departure from his normal. Musically, I don’t think he changed much, but lyrically he really stripped back his facade. I’m sure the album cover is a symbol of that.
Jimmy: I agree with Mariel and Kelly. From an instrumental standpoint, this felt like a Father John Misty album. At times, his voice seemed more emotive and I felt like sometimes it was a little drowned out. Carmen, that’s a great observation on the cover artwork
Carmen: Thanks! Glad you guys agree.
Mitch: I wish this album were just a little more dynamic. “Hangout at the Gallows” and “Mr. Tillman” make for a lively entrance, but other than “Date Night” and “Disappointing Diamonds,” the album feels a little one-dimensional.
Mariel: It does. It’s more easy listening than his prior work, but I have noticed that as a trend in many new releases as of late. Artists sound exhausted, whether or not what they’re singing about reflects the current political landscape. I think pop culture is tired in general (Neko Case’s new album has that feel to it; it’s an absolutely incredible album – definitely some of her best work – but she sounds subdued.) On the flip side of that though, I do like this album a lot better than Pure Comedy. That one to me felt like he was playing the Father John Misty character in full force, which turns me off from him.
Acknowledging that God’s Favorite Customer has been out for less than a week, how do you feel Father John Misty’s fourth album stands in comparison to his previous work, and what (if anything) does it say about him as an artist in this moment?
Mariel: I think that it falls pretty clearly in line with his other work. I don’t know that I could name any single album as a clear front-runner, besides the fact that I didn’t like Pure Comedy very much. I think it shows that he is committed to this artist’s character, and I don’t think we’ll ever know how much of that character is himself or something he’s invented. All that being said, I think that this album, and its subdued sounds, shows a bit more maturity from him. It’s less grandiose than its predecessor.
Kelly: I don’t know if I can fully answer that until his next collection is released. This could be a turning point: he might drop the persona and the societal distaste and speak from a more vulnerable place. Or, this may be a welcome misstep in his life that has allowed him to grow as a musician and a person in which he has reached a public place of acceptance and healing.
Carmen: I mentioned this above, but I definitely think that this album is a great complement to I Love You, Honeybear, and it’s also a lot easier to digest than Pure Comedy. I agree with everyone here in that he seems a lot more vulnerable and real on this album, blurring the lines between the public persona of Father John Misty, and Josh Tillman.
Mariel: I’m almost not so sure there is a line. I’m a cynic, and have a little faith that he’s actually a kind person. He once publicly tore down a fan and fellow musician for covering his song on the Internet, which I am just so not about. My opinion of him has gone down a lot since then.
Jimmy: I think if you like the Father John Misty character and persona, then this is his worst album (that’s not to say this is a bad album, but it is a big departure from what we’ve come to expect). That being said, if you were put off by the irony or the arrogance, then this might be his best album – but I agree with Kelly, in the sense that this may usher in a new era of Father John Misty.
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