After converting sharply honed cynicism and rampant misanthropy into a collection of witty, often scabrous and somehow deeply soulful songs on Father John Misty’s 2017 release Pure Comedy, Josh Tillman more fully targets himself on the follow-up. God’s Favorite Customer is a self-lacerating piece of work, mostly written during a six-week stretch in 2016 when he was living alone in a hotel room in the midst of an existential crisis. He’s opaque about the cause, but not the effects: The album plays like Tillman is watching himself have an out-of-body experience as he, or his Misty persona, behaves erratically in public, sends alarming texts to his wife in the middle of the night and repeatedly questions whether love is redemptive enough to save him.
As bleak as that sounds, Tillman’s gift for melody and his penchant for droll, evocative lyrics pull these 10 songs back from the brink of morbidity. There’s less of the Elton-meets-Nilsson ’70s pop vibe here, but the music here sticks thanks to smart arrangements that mix piano and guitar with occasional string parts. At times, Tillman sounds almost as if he’s scoffing at himself for falling apart: over smooth wordless backing harmonies, he sings “Mr. Tillman” from the deadpan perspective of a hotel clerk expressing polite, bureaucratic concern about the well-being of a guest who is clearly not well. On “The Palace,” accompanied by melancholy piano, he muses about getting a pet so he can learn how to take care of someone else, then concludes, “But I think it might defeat the purpose / Living on housekeeping and room service.” Tillman alternates between his own and his wife’s viewpoint on “Please Don’t Die,” castigating himself in the first half for “one more wasted morning” away from her before switching to her outlook on the refrain and the second half as she entreats him to persevere.
You get the sense that even in the most harrowing depths of his breakdown, his wife served as a kind of beacon. On “Just Dumb Enough to Try,” Tillman is operating under the questionable notion that detonating his life is the only way to start again from zero, like pushing some kind of apocalyptic reset button, and he sounds hopeful in an anguished way. In a moment of clarity on “The Palace,” he sings, “Last night I texted your iPhone / And said I think I’m ready to come home.” If it all sounds like a lot of heavy baggage to dump into an indie-folk album, he addresses that, too, on “The Songwriter.” In recognition of what his creative impulses put her through, even when he’s not in the midst of some episode, he imagines that she’s the one writing the songs. “Would you undress me repeatedly in public / To show how very noble and naked you can be?” he wonders.
The sentiment is a searing self-indictment, but it’s not self-pitying—that’s not Tillman’s style. In fact, even on an album as discomfiting as God’s Favorite Customer can be, he still manages to undercut sincerity with his taste for the absurd. He finds metaphors for love in the form of “a pervert on a crowded bus” and “a carcass left out in the heat” on “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” for example. Yet even Misty isn’t fully immune to heartfelt moments, and he sounds genuine when he offers best wishes on “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That).” The song is a reassuring way to close the album after such a fraught inventory of his various frailties, and if his confessional streak doesn’t quite mark Tillman as an old softy, it’s a sign that a heart still beats somewhere under his caustic exterior.