Coming clean with demons



Father John Misty

Sub Pop

4 stars

William Butler Yeats once waxed lyrical: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

This line haunts my mind whenever I think of Father John Misty, the sharp-tongued miserabilist persona by Josh Tillman, the erstwhile drummer of Fleet Foxes.

Throughout three albums - from the 1970s-loving Fear Fun (2012) to the love-drenched I Love You, Honeybear (2015) to the epic, post-truth-commentary Pure Comedy (2017) - Tillman seduced and shimmied, b****ed and bickered with luxurious eloquence.

Who, for instance, could forget the perfectly absurdist touch of canned television laughter in a 2014 performance of Bored In The USA, as he draped his lithe torso over the grand piano in an episode of Late Show With David Letterman?

Which is why his fourth record under the stage name is a zinger coming from nowhere, barely 12 months after his third album - without much fanfare or a salvo of eyebrow-raising statements.

Describing God's Favorite Customer in an interview as "just 10 tunes, kind of sprightly BPMs (beats per minute)", the understatement comes close to nailing the question of who Tillman is.

Or does it? That is the suspiciously ambivalent air that surrounds him.

You may say God's Favorite Customer is his post-post-truth record, a coming clean with his demons.

Written and recorded in a two-month period when he sequestered himself in a hotel room dealing with unspecified mental health issues, the record, at 38 minutes long, feels exposed, in a relaxed sort of way.

It is his late-night confession to himself, oftentimes recalling the simplest, most affecting moments of John Lennon, as well as the less flashy and bejewelled side of Elton John.

The dancer is not dancing around the issues anymore. In lieu of quicksilver comebacks, you get self-flagellating inquisition.

The album title recalls growing up in a religious family and his early ambition to be a pastor.

In his current predicament, he is seeking reprieve from the Maker, possibly in vain.

"Won't you speak, sweet angel?/Don't you remember me?/I was God's favourite customer/But now I'm in trouble," he keens in the bluesy dirge. Belying the stately piano and softly wheezing harmonica are fraying sentiments.

In Hangout At The Gallows, he asks fundamental questions: "What's your politics?/What's your religion?/What's your intake?/Your reason for living?"

The music is slow-rock majesty, building up to a rhapsodic flourish with slapdash drums, pounding ivories and serpentine electric riffs.

Not that he has completely relinquished his penchant for role-playing. In the meta-textual doozie, Mr Tillman, he imagines the viewpoint of a hotel concierge trying to maintain the facade of professionalism while worrying about the state of his guest.

"Would you like a regalo on the patio?/Is there someone we can call?/Perhaps you shouldn't drink alone," are the part-concerned, part-frustrated sentiments.

One comes closest to figuring out what makes him tick in The Songwriter. Addressing his wife Emma, he sings over lonesome piano: "What would it sound like if you were the songwriter/And you did your living around me?"

Then comes the sucker punch: "Would you undress me repeatedly in public/To show how very noble and naked you can be?"

Let that thought sink in.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2018, with the headline 'Coming clean with demons'. Print Edition | Subscribe