As a book lover, it was a wonderful thing to discover Father John Misty. It is simply impossible to get past the brilliant lyrics this man has continuously pumped out on all four albums released under this moniker. When listening to the stories he has to tell, you are completely immersed in a child-like trance of emotional connection. That said, this does not mean the musical side can be neglected when looking at his work. It may serve mainly as the vessel within which he can deliver his beautiful words, but his smooth baritone and meticulously arranged compositions are nothing to scoff at. Now that I’ve got my confession of love for the man out of the way, I can proceed with the review with a clear conscience.
Josh Tillman’s work has been on an upward trajectory since renaming himself as Father John Misty, with every new album being hailed as his best work. This new LP is no different. It’s surprising how elegantly FJM is able to discuss the soul wrenching topics that he deems important enough to share with the world, while also remaining truthful. The album deals with loss – of home, of loved ones, of purpose – and discusses the various dark and insidious imprints this leaves on the human soul. Sometimes it feels as though people who tell stories of sadness do so sanctimoniously, feeling their sadness makes them unique and special, but that is the exact opposite of what we get with Father John.
He gets straight to the point in the album’s gloomy opener ‘Hangout at the Gallows’. The chorus asks the same four questions each time: “What’s your politics? / What’s your religion? / What’s your intake? / Your reason for living?” – these are questions on a grand scale, questions everyone must face up to in their lives, and they set the tone for the album. Lacking an answer, the soulful inquisitor contemplates death, with a feeling like he has been cornered into it – “Whose bright idea was it to sharpen the knives? / Just twenty minutes ‘fore the boat capsize / If you want an answer it’s anybody’s guess / I’m treading water as I bleed to death.” The appeal of death in such an inescapably depressing existential crisis finally becomes most apparent in the lines: “So you wanna hang out at the gallows? / Those guys get an early start.” A dark opener indeed.
This is followed by the brilliant ‘Mr. Tillman’, where FJM uses his alter-ego to tell a ridiculously exaggerated story of the alienated existence of a musician always on the move. Hotels are a constant theme throughout the album, a symbol of detachment and an unbalanced life. Here, the verses are told intermittently by a hotel receptionist worried about Mr. Tillman’s bizarre behaviour: “And oh, a reminder about our policy / Don’t leave the mattress in the rain if you sleep on the balcony” which is followed by the elated response of the apparently intoxicated subject: “I’m feeling good / Damn, I’m feeling so fine / I’m living on a cloud above an island in my mind.” The song has a remarkably catchy melody and fades out with the accompaniment of some careless whistling, implying the notion of a mind on the wane or perhaps merely past caring.
“The soulful inquisitor contemplates death, with a feeling like he has been cornered into it”
The lowest point of the album is ‘The Palace’. The subject’s desolation has escalated to completely new heights, the jokes are dry and reek of the harrowing self-contempt endemic to depression: “Last night I wrote a poem / Man, I must have been in the poem zone… Maybe I’ll get a pet / Learn how to take care of somebody else / Maybe I’ll name him Jeff.”
The album’s mood does pick up after this and ‘Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All’, one of the most beautiful on the album, compares the crazy, out-of-the-blue love that sometimes grabs hold of us to both a pervert on a crowded bus and an oil tanker tipped at sea – an unwanted contamination but, as he says, “Does everybody have to be the greatest story ever told?” It feels as though the lyrical subject does indeed reach some point of reconciliation with his life at the end of the album. (“I’m in the business of living / yeah, that’s something I’d say”).
The moral lesson he leaves us with is a powerful one, it tells of the disillusionment that can come from planting your feet too firmly in what you have: “Beware the man who has everything / Everything that he wants… I’m out here testing the maxim / That all good things have to stop.” Life is hard, there’s no getting around that, but I feel that a great deal of comfort can be taken from feeling like someone understands exactly how you feel. It is not easy to build such a rapport with fans that are thousands of miles away, but in listening to Father John Misty’s music you really gain a sense of the universal presence of pain – that he feels the same as you do. He seems to be moulding the demons inside him in clay right in front of you. His lyrics feel like he’s having the most honest of conversations with you. This has always been a strong suit of folk music and with every new album it feels like FJM’s songs belong in the vault with the canonical works of Bob, Neil, and Graham.
God’s Favourite Customer
Artist: Father John Misty. Label: Sub Pop. Top Tracks: Mr Tillman; Hangout at the Gallows; Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All. For Fans Of: New Arctic Monkeys; The War On Drugs. 39 minutes