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Father John Misty Is at His Best at His Least Overexposed

The singer sounds his most vulnerable and humble on his fourth album, ‘God’s Favorite Customer,’ minus the usual fanfare

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After three dense albums and 50,000 interviews overflowing with morbid quips, meta goofs, and suave-jester provocation, the first Father John Misty joke in any medium to make me laugh out loud, as found on his latest album, God’s Favorite Customer, goes as follows:

Last night I wrote a poem
Man, I must’ve been in the poem zone

It’s just the purest, stupidest thing. And not to be morbid, but what makes it extra funny is that Father John Misty, né Josh Tillman, sings these lines like they’re not funny in the slightest. The song is called “The Palace,” a slow and shattered piano ballad about a hotel that doubles as a prison, which is how much of his fourth album, God’s Favorite Customer, sounds, and what most of the songs seem to be about. The lines immediately before Tillman’s best-ever joke are, “’Cause I don’t want to leave the palace / At least that’s what my true love calls it.” The line immediately after, an aching refrain delivered in a shaky near-falsetto, is “I’m in over my head.” As a few of his famous poem-zone forefathers once pointed out, you can check out anytime you like, but, well, you know.

God’s Favorite Customer was released on Friday to a suspicious and also tremendously refreshing lack of fanfare, especially given the concurrent outbreak of Kanye mania. The man who once told The New York Times that “I love the exhilaration of feeling a pull quote come out of your mouth—the words just taste better” has done basically no interviews to promote it. (He gave that quote in a hotel lobby, BTW.) One of the sole exceptions is a vague preview he offered Uncut magazine in November 2017, when he described a grim project with such song titles as “Mr. Tillman, Please Leave the Lobby” and “Ouch, I’m Drowning.” Those titles didn’t make the album, but the sentiments, as crystalised now in the weary, ELO-esque jam “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All” or the yearning low-power ballad “Just Dumb Enough to Try,” sure as hell did.

“Most of this next album was written in a six-week period where I was kind of on the straits,” he explained to Uncut, relatively vaguely. “I was living in a hotel for two months. It’s kind of about … yeah … misadventure. The words were just pouring out of me. It’s really rooted in something that happened last year that was … well, my life blew up.”

And then Tillman did something very uncharacteristic, which was clam up. “Look, I don’t want to talk about what happened,” he continued. “Maybe in 30 years from now I will. I know that sounds dramatic. But to talk to me about what this album’s about, I’d have to bring other people into the picture who don’t want to be.”

And that has been just about it from Tillman himself. God’s Favorite Customer’s singles and prerelease videos have served as the album’s only promo, and they are rich texts indeed, or at least very literal texts. The song shortened to just “Mr. Tillman” has a sturdy, bouncy melody that grows more ominous with repetition, and a video that depicts Tillman as caught in a cruel hotel-lobby loop, scrawling his name so many times in the registry that he starts writing it as “ILL MAN.” The fact he does not seem to be a very good actor only helps sell the drama.

“Please Don’t Die,” another shattered piano ballad with only a faint hint of FJM’s usual Silver Lake countrypolitan swagger, is even more explicit, beginning thus: “One more wasted morning / When I can be holding you to my side / Somebody stop this joyless joyride / I’m feeling older than my 35 years.” The claymation video depicts Tillman descending from a trashed hotel room directly into hell, where demons pull him into his own grave, though he is ultimately rescued by a lady who looks an awful lot like his wife, the photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman.

This is not terribly complicated, as narratives go, but it’s a huge relief to not have Tillman lurking in one’s News Feed 24-7, tasting yet more of his own pull quotes in an exhausting attempt to either simplify that narrative or further complicate it. His second album as Father John Misty, 2015’s gorgeous and grandiose wedding present I Love You, Honeybear, perfectly balanced the stylish-troubadour sweep of his music and his increasingly outrageous public persona. The unbearably tender closer “I Went to the Store One Day,” still my favorite FJM song overall, ends with, per Genius lore, his actual first words to his future wife: “I’ve seen you around, what’s your name?”

But the myth overwhelmed the man on 2017’s dirge-like and endlessly self-referential Pure Comedy, a deep-to-the-point-of-bottomless slog that does, however, sound much better the farther we get from its accompanying real-time barrage of blabby features with headlines like “Here Is the Scandalous Father John Misty Interview You’ve Been Waiting For.” Tillman had started working with Beyoncé and, even worse, per that scandalous Pitchfork interview, started talking trash about working with Beyoncé. He was threatening to enter the dreaded His Press Is Better Than His Albums territory, taking a seat at the table directly across from Noel and Liam Gallagher. Verily, that is the polar opposite of the poem zone.

It is thus a glorious feeling, now, to contend with a song as great as “The Songwriter” without the songwriter himself skulking around and lousing it up.

“The Songwriter” is, you guessed it, a slow and shattering piano ballad, and its opening lines are perhaps Tillman’s greatest provocation yet: “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter / And you made your living off of me?” It appears to be an apology to his wife that so many people know her name, and only know it because of all the mildly pornographic songs he has written about her, a pedestal that doubles as its own sort of palace, and its own sort of prison. “Would you undress me repeatedly in public,” he wonders, “to show how very noble and naked you can be?” Using her as his near-constant muse has only stifled her own muses. “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter,” the song concludes, “and loving me was your unsung masterpiece?”

There is an enormous amount of self-referential narcissism in those lines, of course—they’re only an improvement over his past work by comparison. But there are other, equally flattering comparisons. It’s a little cheap and glib, maybe, to cross-reference this album’s rollout with that of Kanye West’s Ye and its beyond-tiresome parade of political bombshells and cheap stunts and flop-sweaty desperation. Cheap and glib, but also fun. At a mere 38 minutes—barely half as long as Pure Comedy, with no explosive pull quotes dividing your attention—God’s Favorite Customer is released of any burden but Tillman’s own, and it sounds as vulnerable as he’s ever gotten and as humble as he’s ever managed to sound. Instead of Kanye’s ostensibly contrite but mostly self-aggrandizing Kim Kardashian-West valentine “Wouldn’t Leave,” we’re confronted here with 10 songs that sound like Tillman’s beloved muse might’ve left. We still know way too much about this guy and his personal life, but for the first time, we don’t know just enough to leave us wanting to hear more.