“It’s a little sappy, but I’d like to play my favorite love song for you.”
Backlit by pea green strobe lights, Father John Misty—the stage name of former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman—is sweating in front of a wild Chicago crowd. It’s April 2016, and the folk rock sensation has recently broken into the mainstream with “I Love You, Honeybear,” a comic concept album about falling in love with his wife, Emma.
“Honeybear” is a balanced combination of earnest postmodernity and catchy melodies. Everyone loves it. And that upsets Tillman.
As he tours the album and as his popularity grows, Tillman has become more erratic in his performances. He rambles about cell phones, or the role of the artist in society. Sometimes he just strums Leonard Cohen songs. Crowds never know what to expect, but they keep coming anyway, just for the spectacle.
Now, as he prepares to play his “favorite love song,” fans are no doubt wondering what crazy stunt he’ll pull next. Will he give us something off “Honeybear” — “Chateau Lobby #4” perhaps? Or will he do something completely bonkers?
It’s the latter. As the crowd’s cheering subsides, the band throws down some heavy bass. Tillman spins to face his audience. The sick green lights flash rhythmically.
“You let me violate you. You let me desecrate you.”
Fewer cheers. This doesn’t sound like a love song.
“You let me penetrate you. You let me complicate you.”
One whoop. This is getting really weird, but Tillman continues spitting out profanity. By the time Tillman screams out the song’s chorus, no one is cheering. This is confusing and kind of scandalous. He’s covering Nine Inch Nails’ mid-nineties hit “Closer,” which few people think of as a pleasant love song. Like Vince Foster and Bret Easton Ellis, the memory of NIN is shameful. Its influence should stay cemented in the decade of American global superiority.
But Tillman is serious tonight, even if he likes to punk his audiences with his overstated presentation. The sort of love professed in “Closer” is the complicated love that marks all of Father John Misty’s music. It at once loathes the self and longs for unity with the divine.
Tillman has been playing with this paradox ever since 2012 when he started releasing music under the Father John Misty moniker in the Leonard Cohen-inspired album “Fear Fun.” His latest project, “God’s Favorite Customer” (to be released June 1), continues in the same groove, working like a romantic novella — a compendium of Tillman’s conflicted spiritual life.
“God’s Favorite Customer” is more upbeat than Father John Misty’s previous albums, and by Tillman’s own admission it is not “pretentious.” Written over six weeks, it follows a loosely narrated mental breakdown Tillman experienced while touring in 2017. Throughout the album, Tillman agonizes over the realization that the way he relates to his God and his wife is incomplete. Falling in love requires no sacrifice; living as one with another person demands the complete self-gift of Christ.
On “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All” he addresses how his relationship with his wife is not the gem he thought it would be. Marriage is hard, and Tillman blenches at the possibility that his spousal love might have to mirror a love for God:
Disappointing diamonds are the rarest of them all.
And a love that lasts forever really can’t be that special.
Sure we know our roles, how it’s supposed to go:
Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?
That last phrase, “the greatest story ever told,” hints at Father John Misty’s conflicted religiosity. Raised an evangelical Christian, Tillman briefly thought about becoming a pastor before rejecting organized religion. Given this background, he must be familiar with the 1965 film “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the golden-age-of-Hollywood epic starring Max Von Sydow as Christ (a movie hilariously parodied by the Coen Brothers in their 2015 film “Hail, Caesar!”—but that’s another story).
By using that particular phrase in “Disappointing Diamonds,” he draws implicit comparison between his love life and Christ’s life of love. If FJM is asking if his marriage has to reflect the story of Christ, then he is softening the statement of the truth he gnashed out explicitly in his performance of “Closer.” A relationship with another person — especially a sexual one — can bind an individual into a more intimate relationship with God.
FJM aligns unity with his wife to union with God even more clearly in the album’s title track, where he addresses his wife after a mental breakdown in a lonely hotel room:
Speak to me.
Won’t you speak, sweet angel?
Don’t you remember me?
I was God’s favorite customer,
But now I’m in trouble.
Tillman does not specify why he is trouble or what wrenched his separation from wife and God, but the whole album bleeds with pleas for reconciliation with both. “God’s Favorite Customer” is never entirely comprehensible, but that’s because separation and reconciliation are too big and too personal to confine in a 10-song spat.
Since he became a household name, Father John Misty’s music has developed into an exercise in fragmentary genius. Tillman understands the necessity of complete communication of his inner life with listeners always accompanies the utter impossibility of the undertaking.
Like the postmodern novelists David Foster Wallace (RIP) or Jonathan Franzen (stick to essays about DFW, please), FJM can only sing about something by vehemently denying that he has any ability to sing about it — with the proviso that thinking this way is the only way he can speak sincerely about the thing. This mode of communication is painfully earnest, sincere, and exactly what Tillman means when he calls himself “ironic.”
Father John Misty’s many layers of absurdity turn off a lot of listeners. They also sometimes backfire on Tillman. FJM’s previous album, “Pure Comedy,” is not a coherent project. The album addresses God directly — angrily — accusing him of failing humanity by creating such a flawed race (“the earth’s most soulful predators”).
“Pure Comedy” came out of the turbulent period of Tillman’s career where he would do crazy things onstage: the “Closer” performance, collapsing into a raving mess while covering Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box,” and ranting for six minutes onstage about the 2016 Republican National Convention and how he thought Donald Trump was turning politics into a reality TV show.
“You may be bummed that Homeless Chris Isaak with a half-unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt is up here lecturing you, but if there’s one thing you remember from this show, let it be that entertainment is stupid,” he told the crowd.
FJM’s outbursts were rockstar antics somewhat akin to Kanye West’s irrational feelings about Trump. But that didn’t make his own venting entirely meaningless. With “Pure Comedy,” Tillman reshaped his angst into an album whose meandering gospel tones cast FJM as a latter-day Job, crying out to God in the whirlwind.
In a 2017 interview with Relevant, Tillman said this sort of discourse is the only form of prayer he understands.
If this [Christ] is truly my maker, and I have an audience with this guy in the way that Christianity claims I do, am I limited to a certain conversation? Are there talking points I have to run through or can I have an intimate conversation with my God?” he said. “For all intents and purposes, I am a Christian, in that you cannot really get it out of your system. It becomes your worldview … I had this realization that even if you become a fanatical anti-Christian, you’re still living in the orbit of these principles. It’s still a part of you.
Christianity is still very much a part of Tillman, and “God’s Favorite Customer” conveys Tillman’s struggles with faith more beautifully than ever before. His story is the story of every Christian: Every whole is a part and every part reveals the greatest whole.
At the risk of sounding as earnest as Tillman himself, I’ll say this. The more Father John Misty’s music unfolds itself, the more deeply the listener becomes enfolded in the greatest story ever told.