Photo: Sergione Infuso/Corbis/Getty Images
Last Friday, a presumed narcissist with a media-dominating tendency and an inclination for grand, divisive statements released one of the shortest and most intimate albums of his career. No, not that guy: I’m talking about iconoclastic singer/songwriter Josh Tillman’s Father John Misty project, whose fourth album God’s Favorite Customer arrives just one year after the exhaustive empire-in-decline chronicle Pure Comedy.
A sweet and funny document of creative quandaries and the personal growing pains that come with wedded bliss, God’s Favorite Customer also marks the culmination of Father John Misty’s avatar-like representation as the most cosmically logged-on musician in the indie sphere. Even shitposters get the blues, and anyone who can even halfway relate to that turn of phrase will possibly find his trajectory of personal expression over the last decade as directly mirroring the complicated and existential experience of engaging in the low-grade digital marketplace of ideas that posting on social media (specifically, Twitter) produces.
At first blush, Father John Misty doesn’t seem to embody the posting habits of, say, your typical Weird Twitter shitlord or Rose Twitter autodidact. For one, his account is disabled at the moment, even though during periods in which it was still active he posted irregularly and with a mixture of arch humor and hard-negative condemnation; the lovely and resolutely chillwave-y “True Affection,” from his 2015 breakthrough I Love You, Honeybear, expresses a nearly Luddite-esque desire to free oneself from screens and apps in favor of a “crazy conversation.”
The last time I interviewed him, in 2014, he told me that he didn’t have internet in his then-home of New Orleans and had to go to a coffee shop every day to log on — a claim that nonetheless could’ve been taken with at least a half-shaker of salt, since he managed to fire off a since-deleted tweet to me afterward claiming the cover of I Love You, Honeybear would resemble the album art of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends with KISS makeup on their faces.
After a full-court press blitz that accompanied (and, arguably, overshadowed) the release of Pure Comedy, Father John Misty’s label home of Sub Pop told journalists upon sending promo copies of God’s Favorite Customer that he wouldn’t be doing any press during this album cycle — a decision that stood in complete opposition to the always-be-promoting stance that most modern musicians in the indie sphere and elsewhere have taken in the 2010s. But taken as a whole, Father John Misty’s discography has — intentionally or not — reflected the totality of the average high-functioning Twitter user’s emotional and intellectual experience.
His attitude and presentation on the auspicious yet relatively plaintive debut, 2012’s Fear Fun, resemble those of an early adopter of the platform, who could develop a unique voice with fewer people watching and in an environment less subject to scrutiny than the one that would follow. There were early drafts at the sardonic and deadly-serious sense of humor he would more or less perfect on subsequent albums, as well as the occasional nakedly sincere and defiantly uncool expression that, as affecting as it is, might cause one to hit the “delete tweet” button a few hours after posting for fear of showing one’s emotional hand too much.
If Fear Fun represents someone just starting to get the hang of this whole posting thing, I Love You, Honeybear is the result of an 140-character (remember, that’s how long tweets were back then) master at work, slinging one-liners and non-sequitur details that — even when they seem to reach potentially problematic heights — drip with just enough ironic detachment to avoid a “Sorry. Im Sorry. Im trying to remove it” situation.
This is where it’s important to note, though, that Father John Misty’s wielding of irony and cynicism-laced humor has been possibly oversold by critics and listeners alike. Any regular posting fiend with an audience fires off the occasional heartfelt or sincere missive as reflected on “Pure Affection” (a “This website is making us sick” of a song if there ever was one) or “Holy Shit,” the latter being a Chapo-esque list of modern absurdities that revolves around the universal truth that love, every once in a while, makes suffering all the attendant bullshit worth it.
Of course, every Good Poster occasionally overdoes it, which is where the full-tilt logorrhea of Pure Comedy comes in. At the time of release, Father John Misty’s third and longest (a CD-busting 74 minutes) full-length proved divisive, and rightly so: The arrangements were practically no-frills compared to I Love You, Honeybear’s lush orchestration, the lyrics were abundant and contained many shades of reflective angst toward art and society at large, and there was a 13-minute song called “Leaving L.A.” (Is there anything more Twitter than an overlong statement about leaving a coastal city?)
As ridiculous as it is to say about a record that’s just over a year old, Pure Comedy’s aged better than you think, and similar to the hundred or so well-meaning #Resistance Twitter users you likely unfollowed or muted after the 2016 election, the record’s relative end-is-nigh bleakness plays a little better with some distance from the collective shock of, well, the 2016 election. (It also won a Grammy, debuted in the Billboard Top 10, and sounded even better live — all good reminders that the online perspective often matters very little in the very real environment of real life.)
If Pure Comedy resembled the sensation of your favorite Weird Twitter user of choice suddenly demonstrating a thread-heavy knowledge of Socialistic labor politics, God’s Favorite Customer is the goodbye-to-all-that — you could call it Father John Misty’s “Why I’m Leaving Twitter” album. There’s something pointed and sardonic to the chorus of the album’s opening track “Hangout at the Gallows” (“What’s your politics?/ What’s your religion?”), possibly taking aim at the reductive ways in which we choose to define and express ourselves online and elsewhere; on the swaggering “Date Night,” he asks straight-up if you’re “Hearing-impared with your own URL.” Overall, the album’s most culturally dismissive moments come across as an exhausted and (if you’re that kind of person) justified half-sneer toward the moment in which the discourse became The Discourse.
Despite those sentiments, though, God’s Favorite Customer is often heartfelt and moony-eyed, serving as a reminder that what most call “cynicism” is typically the expression of frustration that idealists have while realizing that the world is not, in fact, what we try to make it. If you’re steely enough to have survived the last five or so years of increasing toxicity on Twitter without deleting the app completely, it’s possible you’ve arrived at a state of defeated consternation these days and wish to depart the platform completely — a type of mental exhaustion perfectly summed up by just the title alone of the album closer “We’re Only People (and There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That).”
“Just know that I think about you more kindly than you and I have ever been,” Tillman sings sweetly, reflecting the experience of realizing that even the most annoying (and, the distinction must be made, non-hateful) users are likely just tweeting through It like the rest of us. “And I’ll see you the next time around the bend.” It sounds like a fond farewell, and perhaps it is for a short while; but as anyone who’s ever tweeted that they’re “taking a break” from the platform only to return a few days later, it’s a little knowingly dishonest too. He’ll be back — just like the rest of us.