In 2017, a few things were treated as givens. You knew you’d wake up with some sort of existential dread from checking the news or Twitter to see what horrific things Trump had said or done. You could also expect that within seconds of walking outside or turning the radio on that you’d hear “Bodak Yellow” by Cardi B, almost always turned up to full blast. But seemingly without fail, you also knew that if you read nearly any music publication on any random day, you’d see some sort of outlandish interview or news story about Father John Misty, the most sardonic artist in indie rock—and perhaps in the entirety of the music industry besides Kanye West.
Whether he was singing about sleeping with Taylor Swift via virtual reality (and subsequently having to repeatedly explain the lyric), stanning for Nickelback, posting pictures of himself looking at his phone, writing a song about James Comey and fake jingles for Prius commercials, or doing any number of other things, Josh Tillman essentially ran music journalism, forcing nearly every indie rock-leaning writer to give him their full attention at all times. Up until the end of 2017, nearly everything he did went viral, culminating with one of the most in-your-face—and at times, infuriating—media blitzes in recent memory. In the lead up to last year’s Pure Comedy, Tillman was everywhere, bringing his satirical and trolling Father John Misty persona to the masses, from The New York Times to SNL. Whether you loved or hated him, it was impossible to look away.
Even with some of the most intriguing headlines over the last few years—Paste’s “Father John Misty is the Best Kind of Asshole” and Pitchfork’s “Here Is the Scandalous Father John Misty Interview You’ve Been Waiting For,” amongst multitudes of others—it’s completely understandable at some point to have thought to yourself, “Man, I wish Father John Misty would just shut the fuck up.”
Well, you got your wish in 2018.
Despite releasing one of the best records of the year (#18 on our list) with God’s Favorite Customer, Tillman remained quiet, deleting all social media accounts, staying out of the news, and refusing all interviews (which I can personally say was not due to a lack of media requests). Though he was touring for most of the year in support of the new album, his lack of traditional press or social-media presence made it feel like he went completely under the radar in 2018 with few newsworthy actions popping up since the album’s release in early June—this Coldplay “cover” being the only 2017-esque story from the tour.
So what happened? Why did the most mocking, sarcastic, and funny star of indie rock suddenly stop talking?
Well for starters, God’s Favorite Customer is without a doubt Tillman’s most personal album to date under his Father John Misty moniker. Here’s what he told Uncut in November 2017, one of the last interviews he’s given:
“Most of this next album was written in a six-week period where I was kind of on the straits. I was living in a hotel for two months. It’s kind of about… yeah… misadventure. The words were just pouring out of me. It’s really rooted in something that happened last year that was… well, my life blew up. I think the music essentially serves the purpose of making the painful and the isolating less painful and less isolating. But in short, it’s a heartache album.”
After reading and watching a lot of interviews with Josh Tillman over the years, this statement comes across as noticeably more direct and dissimilar to anything he’s admitted to prior. Tillman usually tries to stay one step ahead of the writer—not too unlike Stephen Colbert’s old character on the Colbert Report during interviews—attempting to beat the interviewer at his or her own game, often coming across as a smartass. By admitting—and being hesitant to explain in detail—that his forthcoming record came from a place of extreme hurt and seclusion, we could guess back in November 2017 that it’d be different than his three prior releases. But upon first listen of God’s Favorite Customer, it was obvious that things were different.
God’s Favorite Customer is the first time there isn’t any distance between Josh Tillman and Father John Misty—the latter has, up until now, served as an character for the former, portrayed as a horny womanizing drunk, keen on taking as many drugs as possible and making broad proclamations about religion and politics at large. There have been limitations to this, as I Love You, Honeybear blends the real life Tillman and the fake one, lyrically trolling everyone with “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” before pulling away all of his proverbial layers with album-closing knockout “I Went to the Store One Day,” which details the day he met his eventual wife.
But Tillman is a clever motherfucker—he’s never (up until now) given us personal songs without attempting to throw us off with an outlandish track written from the Father John Misty character perspective. Pure Comedy did this well, simultaneously burying extremely hard looks at himself and his love life under 13-plus minutes of absurdist takes on modern society and the music industry in “Leaving LA.”
Everything changed with God’s Favorite Customer. Gone was the ayahuasca-tripping Misty from Fear Fun’s “I’m Writing a Novel,” the ultra-sarcastic “white Jesus”-loving ideologue with the canned laughter, and the cultural critic wondering what will happen once he’s dead and can’t rate and analyze the problematic artists of the world. Tillman’s 2018 effort is chock full of “I Went to the Store”-esque sincerity and for a change, none of the humor (well, with the exception of his “poem zone”) that dotted his past three releases. The old Misty is dead, leaving behind a wounded and morbid Josh Tillman.
As a result, we can believe Tillman’s Uncut interview more than any he’s given prior; God’s Favorite Customer truly reflects a traumatic hiccup in his marriage with his partner, Emma. Just like the interview snippet, the album is a direct, unflinching, and completely honest look at his life following the event(s) that led him to leave home for two months and the struggle to return.
On the surface, Tillman’s subsequent refusal to speak to the media this album cycle could stem from simply not wanting to answer questions about what transpired between him and his wife. Being one of the most interviewed artists around, he’d surely be asked some variation of that same question hundreds of times over—“so, what happened with you and Emma?” Assuming those events were as life altering and distressing as he initially let on, this is all completely understandable.
Tillman went even further—the prolific social-media jokester went silent on Twitter and Instagram, with only emotionless Facebook updates being posted (likely on his behalf) whenever a new song or music video came out. For any run-of-the-mill musician, this wouldn’t seem too out of the ordinary; we all threaten to log off for good fairly frequently anyways. But for an artist whose whole cult of personality comes from constantly saying eccentric and sardonic things whether a camera or voice recorder is present or not, relentlessly trying to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s a character, his complete silence, not only through interviews but also—and particularly—through social media, is deafening.
By shutting up, Tillman is pushing us to read through the lyric sheet for the Jonathan Rado-produced God’s Favorite Customer even more closely than usual. He’s refusing to explain himself, declining to expand upon the collection of 10 tracks and tell the stories behind him, and in doing so, he’s forcing his listeners to delve deeper into the source material, letting the music speak for itself for the first time in his career under the name Father John Misty.
It’s not like Tillman owes us any explanation. Most major artists are extremely selective with their interviews these days—you rarely see Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, or Beyoncé chat with reporters outside of the occasional Vanity Fair or New York Times profile.
But Tillman is different—he’s known for dominating music news cycles through his interviews rather than just through his music like Radiohead, for example, who can seemingly stop journalists in their tracks by even hinting at a new release through a carefully coded tweet. Tillman’s power comes through saying just provocative enough of things throughout interviews to create a ripple effect throughout the entire music blogosphere—he’s so quotable that simple one-off statements became headlines everywhere.
Aside from much less PR as a result of forgoing interviews and God’s Favorite Customer consequently flying a bit more under the radar than his last few releases, Tillman’s radio silence represents a massive loss for indie rock, a genre starved for interesting characters that could both hold their own in a talk-show interview and command a million-plus follower Twitter account. These are the artists that drive sales and interest in the genre itself via clicks, driving massive traffic across the blogosphere every time a new profile runs.
While pop and rap are currently overflowing with these kinds of personalities, from Cardi B to Vince Staples, few others from indie rock (albeit on a much smaller scale) have managed to create a similar sort of mix of wit, pompousness, and overall vitality in 2018. Mac DeMarco’s bathroom humor, Phoebe Bridgers’ laugh-out-loud Instagram posts, and Ryley Walker’s “indie Drunk Uncle” Twitter account all come to mind, but none have been able to put it altogether in as big of a way as Tillman, who once managed to guest star in a Lana Del Rey music video based on his own experience dropping acid at a Taylor Swift concert.
Indie rock greatly benefits from this kind of larger-than-life persona to help it stave off the supposed decline in the popularity of guitar rock—hell, loads of music journalists raved over the new 1975 record for precisely this reason. Sure, some of the best indie music in recent memory came out in the past year—especially by women, POC, and LGBT artists—and you could argue that without Tillman taking up as much media bandwidth as usual, that allows publications to focus more on a new breed of indie singer/songwriters, but most lack the star power that would turn the heads of those who wouldn’t normally pay attention. Especially now that music sites are constantly tempted to value clicks over coverage of niche genres, it’s harder than ever for an indie-rock artist to break through the revamped poptimist-leaning music-press landscape. Father John Misty provided that in the 2017, backing up his excellent material with an in-your-face media presence, becoming one of the few ascendant indie rock acts to get booked as a talk-show guest, not just as the musical guest, in recent years.
But on top of his previously incessant over-the-top societal critiques, he does—more often than not—offer brilliant satire, well thought out and carefully worded statements that take on American celebrity worship and pop culture at large. Take the aforementioned lyric from “Total Entertainment Forever” about sleeping with Taylor Swift via Virtual Reality—here we see Tillman sing a provocative line that he knows will earn him a load of thinkpieces, but also providing a takedown of the endgame of the future of VR technology, which could likely lead to the disgusting ability to hook up with celebrities. He ends that song with some of the best societal satire of 2017: “When historians find us we’ll be in our homes / Plugged into our hubs / Skin and bones / A frozen smile on every face / As the stories replay.”
His brand of wit and mockery was never previously confined to his music, often taking on music journalism as a whole. Back in 2012, Tillman took us on at Paste, eventually tweeting that he “would like to formally present my application for the ombudsman position at @pastemagazine” before launching into a sincere conversation about the role and future of the media as a whole with Max Blau, our former multimedia editor. While he seemingly was only out for music journalists in 2012, by 2017 he extrapolated his lyrics, interview answers, and social-media posts towards pop culture, religion, politics, and society at large, begrudgingly becoming one of the more insightful musicians and interesting philosophers of our time.
Yes, he could be a bit annoying, a cocky know-it-all contrarian that Ryan Adams once described as “the most self-important asshole on earth.” But now that he’s gone quiet, it’s hard not to miss his mocking commentary on pop culture et al. His silence was one of the most peculiar stories of 2018, that one of the most opinionated and loudmouthed voices in music decided not to talk at all outside of his own album. Yes, it led to an understated—and still extremely acclaimed—record, one that manages to keep growing on you after dozens of listens, but something felt like it was missing without his trademark sardonic sense of humor accompanying it.
We definitely don’t blame Tillman for going silent—we wouldn’t want to have to answer questions about the worst period of our lives either, being forced to relive it one annoying interview at a time—but it’s extremely hard not to long for his social-media presence and headline-inducing interview commentary as well. Though some are likely overjoyed that Father John Misty locked his lips shut in 2018, here’s to hoping that he didn’t swallow the key whole.