Oftentimes, an album cover can say very little about the music found inside. It’s a picture of the band or a design that applies to the title of the album alone, but rarely do these images ever fully represent the feel and energy of the songs at hand. To have an album cover that parallels the themes of an album as a whole in a clear and defined way is a lot to ask of a single image. And yet, God’s Favorite Customer’s cover accomplishes this with one simple picture.
Josh Tillman has released his fourth album under his dark musical alter ego, Father John Misty, and the cover art alone serves as a listener’s guide. It tells you to listen for Tillman’s self-reflection throughout with the thoughtful introspective look on his face, head down in solemn distress. It tells you to keep an eye out for contradictory statements just as the vibrant red and teal lighting contrasts itself. Added together, the cover signals that listeners should be ready for some of his most vulnerable music.
Going into God’s Favorite Customer, be prepared for a different experience than any other Father John Misty exploration of sound and morbidity. This album leaves behind some of the wild, silly wit of albums such as Fear Fun. He strays from embellished romantic ballads like the ones that filled I Love You, Honeybear.
The clean, production-polished sound of his other albums is replaced with untreated yet refined rhythms and acoustic medleys that play as if they have never been touched by a soundboard. His voice trails, raspy and desperate, the way it does when he plays live. Crisp cymbal work laces each song, the metallic sound of the drums or a loose tambourine sharply dancing with the strums of the guitar.
Songs such as “Mr. Tillman” hark back to his familiar wit and hilarity but in a more tailored, focused way than ever before. This tune follows Tillman checking into a hotel room with an extremely attentive concierge who is worried that he is going to trash the hotel. The lighthearted way Tillman reprimands himself is playful and reflective, set to a storytelling tune reminiscent of songs off of Fear Fun.
This song is followed by “Just Dumb Enough to Try,” a baroque, sorrowful ballad paired with electric instrumental interludes that tells of a desperate attempt to stay with someone, even though Tillman knows their love can’t last. He sings, “I’m just dumb enough to try /To keep you in my life / For a little while longer” in a shaky voice serenading along with curdling guitar notes and drums that pound like a violently beating heart. Unlike his past tales of elaborate and frantic love, this is a raw depiction of unfulfilled romance and hopeless desire.
In the quick two-minute tune “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” metaphor after metaphor articulates how a traditional love that lasts forever is boring. He compares his love with his wife to a constant eye twitch that will stay with him forever, or an oil rig spilling at sea, contaminating everything. While the upbeat tempo suggests happiness, the poetic lyricism articulates dissatisfaction.
Evaluating the collection he has spun together on this record, listeners can hear that each song plays to a certain strength. Tillman explores the Father John Misty world he has created, stretching his legs and trying new things while tinkering with old styles.
Tillman has stripped away a lot of the ornamentalism and theatrics of his other projects. On God’s Favorite Customer, he is naked, showing us every one of his flaws dauntlessly. Listening to the album is like reading his diary.
What’s impressive is that no one would’ve thought that the theatrical stylistic features of his preceding albums were actually holding his music back until he called attention to it by removing them. He is fixing things that were never broken, bettering himself not because anyone told him to but because he saw room for improvement that no one else noticed.
Shouldn’t we all do that?