Like one of those optical-illusion drawings from a novelty shop — It’s an old crone! No, it’s a pretty lady with a feather in her hat! — Father John Misty’s true essence has always been a mystery. Is he an earnest troubadour plumbing the depths of folk sincerity? Or a sly Andy Kaufman art joke, a Dada trickster in a fitted blazer?
Only the man born Josh Tillman knows for sure, and he’s too clever or cryptic to tell. But four albums in, the FJM musical formula has been polished to a hirsute sheen: the debonair but world-weary raconteur, swinging between naked self-examination and serrated takes on millennial narcissism and scenester ennui. God’s Favorite Customer sounds as lush as anything he’s done — a rich tapestry of AM-radio jangle and strum threaded with songbook ballads like the rueful opener “Hangout at the Gallows” and pretty, plaintive “Just Dumb Enough to Try.”
“Mr. Tillman” unfurls likes a fever dream, “Hotel California” via Sunset Boulevard; “Date Night” is a surrealist boogie stacked with inside jokes about men’s fashion and internet fame. If it’s his destiny to be the official soundtrack for all the young dudes cruising Bed-Stuy and Eagle Rock in worn jeans and Warby Parkers, a Randy Newman for the Instagram age, he might as well lean into the curve; nearly every lyric is pregnant with that knowledge. As he coos on “Just Dumb Enough,” “I know my way ‘round a tune/ Won’t be a single dry eye in the room /But you can take what I know about you/And maybe fill a small balloon.
There’s a certain sourness in the disdain that sometimes spills over for the very audience that feeds him (those Warby Parkers, can they really help themselves?). And a silliness, too, when he tips toward heavy metaphor (“Like a pervert on a crowded bus the glare of love bears down on us/Like a carcass left out in the heat this love is bursting out of me” would probably only sound like true romance to George Romero.)
But when Tillman is good, he is very very good: a master of classic melody, even if the source is meta, and something like a true poet when he wants to be. “I’ll take it easy with the morbid stuff,” he promises (falsely) on “Please Don’t Die.” It’s a promise that by now we almost count on him to break; if he wasn’t being morbid, wordy, and more than a little absurd, it probably wouldn’t feel like Misty at all. A–