In a surprisingly rapid follow-up to Pure Comedy, Josh Tillman has thrust out a record that’s arguably his most concise to date. Leaving the outward looking meta-analysis behind, he moved into a hotel for six weeks to gaze deeply inward at his struggling marriage while binging on drink and drugs. The results are a wild ride, sure, but still melodic as hell.
Musically this album is clearly less laboured than Pure Comedy, the arrangements are much shorter throughout, cutting straight to the lyrical content. There are still many of the same musical motifs, acoustic guitars and pianos leading the songs, with plenty of flourishes from interesting lead guitar or synth melodies, to the sort of rousing orchestral arrangements the last album made us expect. Although it’s done in a way that shows a masterclass of constraint. These tools are used liberally and deliberately. You get the sense that very little time was wasted in throwing this all together, which gives it a surprising feel of fragility, despite the robust nature of the composition and arrangement. Perhaps that’s just the effect that the stillness found in Pure Comedy has, when it is followed by an album that seldom rests any longer than necessary.
Our first taste of the album came in the form of ‘Mr. Tillman’, one of many self-referential tracks in Misty’s canon. Its cyclical chord sequence remains the same throughout. Although there’s clearly a journey of sorts within the lyrics, and there’s movement within the arrangement, the fact we remain stuck within the same eight chord sequence lends the song an air of claustrophobia that’s almost dizzying. It works great as a metaphor for the touring/hotel cycle which Tillman spent the last few years trapped in, but if we’re to take the artist seriously, he’s told us that it refers to a period where he moved into a hotel while his marriage was on the rocks. Neophytes might find it callous of me to question Tillman’s authenticity, but anyone who has been following his work as Father John Misty closely will know that the situation is somewhat complicated. Tillman established Misty as a platform for his musical output, after a somewhat acrimonious split with Fleet Foxes. He seemed to fall-out spectacularly with the group, creating this character in the aftermath to inhabit as a solo performer. Ever since, the lines between Misty and Tillman have grown increasingly blurred. The last album seemed to me to be more of a sermon from the mouth of the padre, such was its tone, looking out into the world, trying to understand the human condition. It included moments of self-analysis too, which were clearly about Tillman, the 13 minutes of ‘Leaving LA’ being the prime example. On God’s Favorite Customer we find Josh speaking more directly and more personally, about his own life.
On ‘Just Dumb Enough To Try’ he’s full of regret over his failure to understand his wife and her needs. He speaks about being able to trick his way through life by singing a few songs and telling a few jokes, but that he actually knows very little about love. You get the sense that something dramatic happened, something he doesn’t want to go into detail about in public, but from his assertion that this album, “Needed to go down near the blast site”, it was important to get this out quickly, while it was emotionally fresh. At times it feels like the track-list veers from this bullshitting blaggard on the pull (‘Date Night’) to Tillman waking up the next morning full of regret (‘Please Don’t Die’ – although this could easily be interpreted as his wife’s words to him). These emotional swerves are reflected in the production too: we switch from lush and orchestral on ‘Just Dumb Enough To Try’ to an almost grunge-like sound on ‘Date Night’.
It’s almost as if there’s a battle going on between Josh Tillman, who wants to fix things with his wife, and Father John Misty, who wants to keep riding the wave and partying with his ‘reptilian friends’. ‘Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All’ finds Tillman using extremely dark metaphors to describe his love (“Like a carcass left out in the heat/this love is bursting out of me”) as if he’s started to fear that his relationship has become diseased, and that he’s the infection. However, perhaps this whole album is his way of getting revenge on the character of Misty taking over his life. By turning his caustic wit inwards, where often in the past it was his lover who was lyrically dissected, as the muse for most of his first two records, he subverts the over-confident character and presents someone who is more human, fragile and conflicted. Either way, it’s another excellent album from Father John Misty, that suffers little from the switch to a more personal narrative. For, perhaps, in his own self-analysis we might find little parables to consider our own misgivings and learn a little more about life and love in the process.