Secret Meeting score: 90
by Phil Scarisbrick
In our recent interview with Ari Roar, we asked him whether that moniker was a persona, a character, a name or a band. His answer was that it was actually all of those things. It was a way to separate your ego from your name. Fellow Bella Union stable-mate – Father John Misty, is often asked the same thing. During his early career, he worked under his own name: J. Tillman. It wasn’t until he took on the new moniker though that he started to find success. The name somehow gave him the freedom to express these rich ideas about the world we inhabit, using colourful character-based scenes. He both caricatures and castigates the human race in a way that feels profound, but with a dry wit that makes you connect with these big ideas more freely. That was until this week’s new album: God’s Favourite Customer.
Though this sounds similar to previous Misty records, with its seventies-evoking folk rock mixed with sweeping strings and horns, the trademark humour has taken a backseat. Although not completely gone, it is pared back as Tillman combines the cost of love narrative of 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, with the extolling of humanity’s self-destructive behaviour in recent years that weaves Pure Comedy together. It is this more serious tone that makes it feel more personal, addressing issues head on rather than with hyperbole.
Opening track, Hangout At The Gallows, laments the growing fractures in society. He sings, ‘Whose bright idea was it to sharpen the knives?/Just twenty minutes ‘fore the boat capsize’, at a time when we should all be on the same side, people are more openly vitriolic to one another. The conciliatory tone gives a sense of foreboding rather any call to arms. There is also a reference to a hotel with the line- ‘Psychic terrorists in the upper room’. This is a setting that is threaded throughout the record. Mr. Tilllman was the album’s lead single and continues the hotel theme. Being sung from the point of view of a hotel concierge, the narrator is trying to remain professional but also demonstrate his frustration with Mr. Tillman as well as his pity for him. Tillman at the time had been living at the hotel for two months following a personal crisis. He displays signs of ‘Truman Show Syndrome’, believing that he is in a staged reality show rather than real life, as his situation is far too preposterous to be genuine.
Just Dumb Enough To Try is a superb takedown of the idea of male bravado. Each verse starts with proclamations like- ‘I know a few ten-cent words/that I can break out to keep up with her’, before conceding that he knows little about love. He rationalises that a smart person would avoid writing about love in this situation, but that he is ‘just dumb enough to try’. This deeply personal take on his own relationship and art is another sign of the Misty mask slipping.
Please Don’t Die is as fine a piece of writing as Tillman has ever produced. Addressing the situation described in Mr. Tillman, this time there is no jocular nuance. Tillman is very open about his struggles with depression, and it is this struggle that led him to the two month ‘misadventure’ in the hotel. Where Mr. Tillman makes light of the absurdity of the delusions he was suffering with, Please Don’t Die acknowledges how serious they were. The chorus is sung from the point of view of his wife, worried about him and his spiralling psyche. ‘Oh, honey I’m worried ’bout you/You’re too much to lose/You’re all that I have/And, honey I’m worried ’bout you/Put yourself in my shoes/You’re all that I have so please don’t die/Wherever you are tonight’, he sings, giving a stark reality to check that his struggles are real, and their effects affect those around him just as much.
Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest Of Them All is lyrically very similar to those used on Honeybear. Utilising odd metaphors to explain his love for his wife, here he bemoans the fact that traditional love story telling paints the picture of ‘the greatest story ever told’. Most people’s stories aren’t perfect, even the ones with the happy endings, but that’s ok. Final track – We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much We Can Do About That), seems to tie everything together. Human frailty has always been a subject he has used, usually to great comic affect. Here he plays it straight. Yes as people we’re flawed, but why not embrace it, accept it, rather than chasing the idea we can be someone else? ‘People, we know so little about ourselves/But just enough to wanna be nearly anybody else/How does that add up?’ he sings, it feels like after all the pain and soul-searching he is finally prepared to accept who he is, warts and all.
Could this be the end for Father John Misty then? Does Tillman need this alter-ego to express his ideas, his inner demons and his love? While musically it sounds like a continuation of his previous records, the stark and direct lyrics feel like a complete sea change. The mask hasn’t just slipped, it has fallen off completely. Whatever the future holds though, God’s Favourite Customer is a masterpiece. The humour that has been a fixture previously is largely absent, but it is with good reason. Tillman needed to be direct, he needed to face up to whatever was swirling round in his head. The results of which are stunning. If this is to be an end to the Father John Misty persona, then it is an end worthy of remembrance.