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Josh Tillman’s fourth album as Father John Misty is his most palatable. Whereas 2017’s Pure Comedy shows the singer shifting the focus from himself—or, rather, a caricature of himself—to offer thoughts on our technology-obsessed culture, God’s Favorite Customer finds him in a reflective mood. Only this time Tillman seems more intent on creating a sense of empathy—a long-overdue development. The album presents a vision of a man who, as he sings at one point, is “feeling older than my 35 years.” Tillman doesn’t always like what he sees. Of course, when it comes to the former Fleet Foxes member, it remains difficult to know where the joke ends and the sincerity begins. God’s Favorite Customer stands as the his most seamless mix of the two yet.
A Tillman song is nothing if not detailed. More breezy and calming than Pure Comedy, which laces its biting folk with orchestral splashes and piano bursts, here, Tillman marries awkwardness with sonic pleasantries. Listen with headphones, but this music isn’t solely built for relaxing. Throw it on, say, while having dental work done. The reassuring California-styled folk—Tillman remains deeply steeped in the Linda Ronstadt-inspired Laurel Canyon sound—will mask the scrapes and drills with a lovely balm. And Tillman songs are just awkward and cringe-worthy enough to keep a listener on high alert. Take the swift “Mr. Tillman,” where he revisits the hotel where he and his pals trashed a room and imagines a difficult conversation with the front desk on a future visit. Suddenly, a helpless moment in a dental chair doesn’t feel so bad.
Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life.The work marries surreal, psychedelic animation with pretentious and highly literate conversations about the meaning of life. It feels at once academic and absurd, and could leave the audience more confused on the way out than when they took their seats. A similar effect washes over God’s Favorite Customer, a record that at times feels familiar and cozy, but traffics in existentialism. After all, the opening number tosses out several not-so-easy to answer questions: “What’s your politics? What’s your religion? What’s your intake? Your reason for living?”
There was reason to be nervous about God’s Favorite Customer, Josh Tillman’s second album in 13 months. After all, his sort of wordy, pithy songwriting can take time to absorb. Additionally, Tillman’s sense of humor—he’s joked about characters who dream up having sex with pop stars in virtual reality and mock their significant others for their vocabulary—not only qualifies as an acquired taste but benefits from being appreciated in small doses. Still, maybe a rushed schedule suits Tillman, as the plague of over-thinking that sometimes pollutes his earlier works is largely absent here. Refreshingly, God’s Favorite Customer dials back the more exaggerated aspects of Tillman’s personality.
Sonically, he opts for an intimate feel. Tillman’s voice has always been simple, clear, and smooth, but tracks such as “Hangout at the Gallows” give him slight White Album-like accoutrements—woozy background harmonies, sorrowful orchestrations—that add a restrained elegance. Could it be Tillman is finally getting serious? Not really, but at least the occasional egotistical brat shows a propensity to mock himself.
“Last night I wrote a poem,” he sings on the twilight piano ballad “The Palace,” adding, ridiculously, of course, “man, I must have been in the poem zone.” Yet the tune also addresses his inability to mature and his frustrations at his own self-destruction. The lovely, Band-inspired “Please Don’t Die,” in which jangly acoustics cuddle with rootsy guitar solos and a rich piano, comes off as genuine display of affection for people who find genuine displays of affection rather gross.
“Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All” stands out as a crusade against idealism, arguing fairy-tale romance doesn’t exist all the while acknowledging that that’s more than okay. “Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?” Tillman sings, his voice rising to a falsetto as a bright horn section brings the cut to a triumphant close. It highlights the true achievement of God’s Favorite Customer. Tillman no longer treats his weirdness with self-important swagger. Instead, he’s showing compassion to misfits the world over.
Sub Pop did a terrific job with the sonics and packaging of a record that’ll cost you (way) less than $20 on Amazon. The regular-weight vinyl is flat and quiet, and the sound, by modern rock standards, impressive. It boasts solid, detailed bass, and engaging separation and clarity between instruments and vocals. Another nice touch: The cool center-label design that mimics a test pressing markup. The thin-ish direct-to-board jacket features graphics in the inner pocket and what looks like rather fancy, embossed gold foil on the back cover. Our review sample was bought at retail when the album was released in June and already shows a little ring wear around the outline of the LP on the back cover. Nevertheless, it’s well done and a value, to boot.
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