By Justin Landis
There’s something truly magical about listening to a new record and discovering that the artist wrote it for you. Hearing a favorite artist voice familiar feelings before you’ve found the words or the courage to articulate them can be nearly as cathartic as voicing them oneself. This is precisely how I felt listening to Father John Misty repeatedly croon “I’m in over my head / I’m way in over my head” on his 2018 release, “God’s Favorite Customer.”
The album begins abruptly on the downbeat. No fanfare, no fade in, just a note and a beat. The simple instrumentation is quickly joined by background vocals, string arrangements and some tasty piano licks. This record is rich, both sonically and lyrically. The chorus of “Hangout at the Gallows” repeats, “What’s your politics, what’s your religion” so we can prepare ourselves for Tillman’s signature candor.
Track two is the self-referential “Mr. Tillman,” wherein the voice of a hotel middle manager offers repeated backhanded jabs at Tillman’s lifestyle and reputation. Lines like, “Is there someone we can call — perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone,” and, “What a beautiful tattoo that young man has on his face,” keep it playful while the chorus hears an aloof Tillman crooning “I’m feeling good, damn I’m feeling so fine / I’m living on a cloud above an island in my mind.” This obvious disconnect from societal conventions provides the perfect vicarious empowerment for crafting New Year’s resolutions and making plans to take the vacation of your dreams. On the other hand, he kind of comes off as a narcissistic asshole.
“Just Dumb Enough to Try” is a spectacular narcissistic love song. “You can take what I know about you and maybe fill a small balloon / but I’m just dumb enough to try to keep you in my life a little while longer” is Tillman’s way of saying she’s too good for him. The irony that this love song is really about the author and not the subject is telling and consistent with the tone of the album. It also betrays the cynicism through which he views the world, or at least feigns to. Does Tillman even believe in love or is this song really more of a testament to his boldness and conquest?
In “Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All” he takes an even more cynical look at love, but it really only looks that was because it’s not told from his perspective. “Like an oil tanker tipped at sea / This love’s contaminated me / Like a constant twitching in my eye / This love of ours will never die.”
In “The Songwriter,” Tillman asks, “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter / And you did your living around me? / Would you undress me repeatedly in public / To show how very noble and naked you can be?” It’s hard not to wonder where the lines between art and life blur. Is his willingness to expose their private life a real challenge in the Tillman household or is he just carrying the theme to its logical conclusion?
The crescendo of the album, for me, is where it started, in “The Palace.” “I’m in over my head / I’m way in over my head,” is the refrain of this soft piano ballad where Tillman muses about getting a pet so that he can “learn how to take care of somebody else” but then immediately realizes that “living on housekeeping and room service” may short circuit the goal. The melody has a baroque comfort to it and the story feels like as much confession as declaration.
The last song on the record, “We’re Only People,” provides an anthemic end, reminding us of our own humanity and the insecurities we share and suggests that shedding our distinctions may offer the transcendence we’re seeking.
It’s also a great salutation as 2018 comes to an end.
“Oh, friends, all my friends / Oh, I hope you’re somewhere smiling / Just know I think about you more kindly than you and I have ever been / And I’ll see you the next time around the bend.”
Justin Landis is a musician and half of the band Cedar & Boyer. Check out his music at www.cedarandboyer.com
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