After the breakthrough success of his sophomore record as Father John Misty, 2015’s stunningly sweet I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman took advantage of this newfound spotlight and ran as far as he could with it. Whether it was Instagram videos of him visibly on Ecstasy backstage at the Governors Ball, snaps of St. Vincent’s eyelashes, or tweets claiming responsibility for the theft of a rose quartz crystal from a hip L.A. juice bar, Tillman seized every opportunity to mock the trappings of celebrity and a society as engorged on hot takes as it was pacified by a steady stream of amusing viral content.
Then something interesting happened. The possibility of a Donald Trump presidency — something that began as a punch line before devolving into a hilariously unsubtle symptom of the United States’ inner rot and latent yearning for authoritarianism — became frighteningly real after the soon-to-be commander in chief cinched the Republican nomination in July 2016.
In a now-infamous performance at XPoNential Music Festival in Camden, New Jersey, only one day after the 2016 Republican National Convention, Tillman’s observations that had once been made with tongue firmly planted in cheek instead became bitter, distraught lashings.
“I always thought that it was going to look way more sophisticated than this when evil happened,” Tillman said during the so-called performance, which comprised only two songs and one long tirade about entertainment’s role in numbing consumers and paving the way for the worst to happen. “I cannot play 'Bored in the USA' for you right now. No, no, no, because guess what? I soft-shoed that shit into existence by going, ‘No, no, no, look over here — it’ll never actually be that bad because we’re too smart.’ And while we were looking in that direction, stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid! Do you guys realize that?”
With the release of his third studio album, the decadently arranged social critique Pure Comedy, less than three months after our big-boy president began his tenure, Tillman solidified his reputation in the eyes of many as yet another insufferable "self-serious white guy," as he once put it in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, releasing "wordy, faux-intellectual hipster garbage" masquerading as music.
Tillman has largely avoided these charges with God’s Favorite Customer. The record rejects both the societal scope of Pure Comedy’s lyrics as well as the diverse sonic palate of I Love You, Honeybear, instead delivering straightforwardness. Even though the trademark wit is still present (see the now-infamous “Last night I wrote a poem/Man, I must've been in the poem zone” line on “The Palace”), God’s Favorite Customer leads largely with vulnerable piano ballads and sincerity. An amalgamation of older, unreleased songs and material written in the early days of 2017 when Tillman hit a rough patch with his wife Emma, God’s Favorite Customer holds some of the most affecting tunes in his discography, including the plaintive title track and the glimmering melancholy of “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All.”
Oh, and he’s posting on the internet far less and largely shunning interviews, leaving scarce opportunities for quotes such as “I'm basically a meme at this point” or discussions about wanting to be “authentically bogus rather than bogusly authentic.”
If the positive reception to the record has been any indication, God’s Favorite Customer was exactly the record Tillman needed to release in the aftermath of Pure Comedy and his social media stunt work. Despite his widespread reputation as "Another white guy.../Who takes himself so goddamn seriously” — as he puts it on the 13-minute epic "Leaving LA" — his latest effort has won over lapsed fans and former naysayers alike by showing off his bona fides as a songwriter rather than ginning up another spectacle.
But it’d be a mistake to equate Tillman's newfound emphasis on vulnerability with an increase in lyrical authenticity. And it’d be disingenuous to suggest Tillman’s sardonic social media presence was all for show rather than an honest reaction to the stupidity and absurdity that pervaded our lives long before 2016 and continues to fuck things up to this day. Before his silly videos and before the serious prospect of a disruptive Trump presidential campaign, let alone a presidency, Tillman captured our shared ennui better than many artists before or since with the release of “Bored in the USA” during the halcyon days of 2014. Perhaps most impressive, he did so while keeping his tongue in his cheek.
Whether it’s the head-over-heels pleadings of I Love You, Honeybear, the gravely wounded optimism of Pure Comedy, the emotional devastation of God’s Favorite Customer, or, yes, those inane social media posts, Tillman has always engaged with the modern American condition in a manner that few contemporary singer-songwriters have been able to match.
Just think how far we’ve come in the past year alone, with thousands of children separated from their parents and forcibly served psychotropic drugs, regularly occurring environmental disasters that are guaranteed to increase in frequency, and the newsworthiness of reports that the president’s penis looks like a Mario Kart character. You can't blame Josh Tillman for staring into the abyss and choosing to laugh through the tears.
Father John Misty. With King Tuff. 7 p.m. Friday, September 28, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $35 to $50 via livenation.com.