Misconstruing God’s Favorite Customer

Josh Tillman’s new Father John Misty record challenges his listeners—and critics

Father John Misty. (SubPop)

Two Fridays ago, Josh Tillman released the fourth LP under his Father John Misty nom de guerre, God’s Favorite Customer, leaving verbose hipster neophytes with only a year and a half to process the release of last year’s knotty, epic, zeitgeist-gazing Pure Comedy.

The universal acclaim for Tillman’s God’s Favorite Customer mostly centers around its more personal, vulnerable lyrics; his refocusing on shorter, more direct songs, and his commitment to not let the ideas overtake the direction of the music. What critics are missing about Tillman’s particular stylistic artifice this time around, though, is that the singer is also reporting—reporting on what it was like to weather the absurd promotional interviews around last year’s Pure Comedy, and reporting on how surreal it feels to present complicated narrative ideas about consumption and acceleration in the modern media zeitgeist to the willing, submissive arbiters of that modern media zeitgeist.

At one point on God’s Favorite Customer, Tillman sings about the absurd Fellini-esque spectacle of two days of Pure Comedy interviews at The Bowery Hotel, a trip wherein he’s play-acting the role of oracle outside the ancient citadel, watching the flood waters rise and mourning irreparable damage has been done to his faith in the media channels assigned to help interpret his work for the rest of us.

This is no more evident than in Tillman’s interview with Pitchfork last year, when, lobbed with questions by Senior Editor Jillian Mapes about how other people see him or what he thinks of pop music, he time and again pushed back on her general line of questioning.

That story’s headline, “Here Is the Scandalous Father John Misty Interview You’ve Been Waiting For,” sets the precedent of shock over substance from the get-go, and an intro equating Tillman’s tendency for public rants to Kanye West’s doesn’t suggest a serious consideration of Tillman’s ideas either, which is what an interview, at its core, should always do (more on Kanye later).

“He’s more interested in talking about the seemingly inevitable backlash than the inspiration, anyway,” Mapes blithely quips in the intro, never condeding that the quote of Tillman’s twixt she is referring is about the very media infrastructure of manufactured outrage and gimmickry to which her line of questioning, and thesis of her piece, unwittingly subscribes.

Get past her paragraph describing his appearance in the lobby of The Bowery Hotel, which Mapes seems to dismiss as bougie despite the fact that Pitchfork often interviews its subjects there, and she explains to Tillman what the word “like” means—”to have a genuine reaction to something—an enjoyment that is not ironic.”

Nevermind that Pitchfork’s entire brand exists off identity-marketed irony. Tillman pushes back on the questions in attempt to break through her journalistic defenses and get into the weeds about some of the many timely themes that Pure Comedy’s songs embrace— accelerating content consumption patterns, the normalization of classism in popular music, the growing ubiquity of technology— that neither Mapes, nor any other reporter included in the album release cycle, seem equipped to deeply explore.

It’s certainly not on her, nor the journalist from Rolling Stone who also started their interview with Tillman by talking about Pure Comedy’s incendiary ‘Taylor Swift’ line on the album’s Total Entertainment Forever.” When the outlet that you write for, and music journalism at large, encourages the very cults of celebrity and personality that Tillman’s Father John Misty character is meant to parody, the boundary between sentiment and satire remains ever thin.

But to stop probing at the character’s facade, at the artifice its creation is meant to embody, illuminates the limits of most music and entertainment journalists inability to think about larger patterns in art and culture, instead ever-focused on the consequences of popularity and fame. The interviews around Pure Comedy could have gotten at some real shit, but instead merely push their subjects to gaze into the mirror at themselves. With more time and resources, one hopes that these interviewers would have instead done the research that allows them to go deeper into unpacking the concepts that inform Tillman’s work.

Tillman calls this out to Pitchfork later on in that interview. Pressed to explain why he stayed on the label Sub Pop, when a move to Interscope could have allowed him to ‘take down the system from the inside,’ he again rejects the premise of the question.

“I don’t believe in fucking shit up from the inside,” he says. “That means you have enough faith in the system that it can be perfected in some way. I don’t believe in that system, so I don’t have any petulant desire to toy with or antagonize it.”

Maybe this is why more than one journalist feels trolled by Tillman’s rambling nonchalance. All of the questions take certain assumptions about the industry, and his intentions, at face value. Instead, they ought to be questioning the fine line between art and artifice in the first place.

Mapes’ line about Tillman’s  “Kanye West-style outspokenness” in the Pitchfork  interview’s intro feels telling through this lens, too. In his most recent pre-album tweeting deluge, Kanye references some tremendously influential thinkers on modern artistic and cultural theory—namely, the late Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys and the filmmaker Adam Curtis’ Century of Self.

Kanye’s inability to own Curtis’ critique of nationally-encouraged narcissistic media culture, for example, makes the rapper’s name dropping of these artists a hypocritical farce. Tillman, through Misty, seems to be presenting some similar critiques as more than just an aesthetic, but rather a consistently combative, contrarian radical. This is why his stated understanding that an artist can not “Trojan Horse” mainstream infrastructure, SNL appearance or no, demonstrates how aware he is of the infinitely mirrored black hole that is the modern album release cycle.

While Pure Comedy pushed this egomaniacal nonchalance to the brink of wide-eyed self indulgence, God’s Favorite Customer seems to instead focus on what it’s like to go through the motions.

Consider the new album’s first single, “Mr. Tillman, with the alternate title of “Bowery.” Tillman sings about being criticized for a surreal, absurd level of decadent behavior by a hotel concierge doing their best to be hospitable to him. Tillman leaves a mattress in the rain, mistakes the hotel guests for extras in a movie, and runs into Drive By Truckers’ Jason Isbell in the lobby, who expresses concern for Tillman’s state of being (Tillman confesses to being on acid in that Rolling Stone interview, also in the lobby of The Bowery Hotel, which might have contributed toward him not seeing all together “there” to Isbell).

“Mr. Tillman” is an absurd amplification of the rock star “trash a hotel” trope that makes a hell of a lot more sense when considered in the context of its real-life inspiration—a promotional stay for the previous album wherein Tillman balanced chemical excess with excess of verbosity through a few interviews (to Vulture, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and who else?) then got on with the show.

More than that, though, God’s Favorite Customer challenges that same sentiment that Tillman seemed to hold evangelically last year—that you can’t take down a system from the inside. Because the songs on God’s Favorite Customer’s don’t depend wholly on the wit and wisdom of Tillman’s lyrics to work, but are also digestible as tightly constructed compositions, they gain a quietly subversive quality that could fool someone into thinking he’s just another firebrand like Kanye after all, or not picking up on the lyrical depth and just enjoying the album as a collection of well-crafted songs.  

As comparing Father John Misty to Kanye is cheap and surface, so too was Ryan Adams’ comparing Tillman’s character to the brooding Nick Cave. Both Cave and Misty are professors of dark truths, lotharios and unreliable narrators, but the comparisons stop there.

Musically, stylistically, and with regard to his stage name, Father John Misty has far more in common with Papa John Phillips, the late, equally scandal-prone singer/songwriter from The Mamas and the Papas. Listen to Papa John Phillips’ 1970 masterwork, John, The Wolfking of L.A. and hear the lush sounds of full-band Topanga Canyon-styled folk rock contorted—lush pedal steel, gospel choir and rollicking piano subverted by dark lyrics about scoring heroin, cultish violence and questionable sexual proclivities.

In hindsight (and liberated from the unspeakable accusations levied at Papa John Phillips after his death), the timing of Wolfking’s societal critiques deflate the marketed aesthetic of ‘60s utopia. Recorded in 1969 but released in January, 1970, the album’s thoughts on free love and excess are communicated blissfully, casually and without a hint of criticism, making the disconnect between what we’re hearing and how we’re hearing it all the more effective.

That may not have been Phillips’ intention, but, as Father John Misty, it’s surely Tillman’s. Similarities between sonics and names aside, the sole focus of Father John Misty’s output seems to be similarly call out the disconnect between how utopian and advanced modern society actually is versus how it purports to be.

To that end the question must be asked, do we consumers of editorial content really deserve Father John Misty? If those who have been appointed to the most senior positions of longform cultural authority can’t follow Tillman down into the heady narratives of media criticism and infrastructural damnation that make up his work, should he even give any more interviews? For those of us in a position to foster genuine creative conversation, it seems we at least ought to try.

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Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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