If God’s Favorite Customer is any indication, Jason Isbell had every right to worry about “Mr. Tillman.”
On that haunted, detached first single, the person at the front desk of the Lafayette Hotel (a two-month home for Tillman, as part of a self-imposed exile) tosses an Isbell namedrop onto an escalating pile of hotel room hallucinations and Truman Show delusions. The production, by Jonathan Rado of Foxygen and longtime collaborator Jonathan Wilson, adds to the feeling that the music itself is looking down upon Mr. Tillman, with a guitar line rudely interrupting that Isbell line and confused ad-libs dotting the ends of the stereo field. Where the soft-rock leanings were usually meant as a contrast to bottomless pits of lyrical irony, the repetitive, mid-tempo arrangements–several songs start with a similar chunky piano voicing–wind up making the material sound more somber than ever.
“Mr. Tillman” was funny on first release, but feels darker after the rest of the album deconstructs what Father John Misty is. As it turns out, the only person more done with Father John Misty than the hotel concierge (and every interviewer alive) is Josh Tillman himself, as his self-destructive lothario alter-ego and his true self have become inseparable. His fourth album as FJM, God’s Favorite Customer, suggests a new possibility: Father John Misty is the real person, and the idea of a grounded, just-trolling-you Josh Tillman behind closed doors was the act.
If that’s the case, it’s no wonder the album shines when the humor returns. A line like “Last night I wrote a poem/Man, I must have been in the poem zone” is more revealing than any line on the actual melodramatic thought exercise “The Songwriter.” Meanwhile, Emma remains the one thing that prevents Father John Misty from being a complete mess, as their relationship goes right to the edge of toxicity. On “Please Don’t Die,” she’s telling him not to die, but the reverse is just as apparent.
Most of the album’s pathos comes undone by the last song. “We’re Only People” resembles the end of Jason Reitman’s underrated Young Adult; a single conversation with Charlize Theron’s character is enough to undo all that character’s development, and she ends the film unchanged. Similarly, Misty goes right back to the worst of Pure Comedy territory, making half-ironic grand statements about humanity instead of finding the humanity in himself. The closing lines of “you’ve been hurt/and I’ve been hurt/but what do we do now?” resembles his previous mic-drops (“seen you around, what’s your name,” “there’s nothing to fear”), but the gut-punch effect doesn’t land quite the same. The album is at its best as a real “concept album about Josh Tillman,” insofar as Tillman and Misty will ever define themselves as “real,” wholly independent beings. I hope the next record will be about recovery.
For now, we’re stuck with a record that’s both intentionally and unintentionally frustrating: A record about self-loathing where the actual remorse is absent, where its creator would insist that’s the point. A record fronted by a writer self-aware enough to note a contrast between several-years-sober Jason Isbell and two-months-into-a-hotel-exile Father John Misty, but doesn’t to come to any greater conclusion than “we’re only people.”