Father John Misty released an album on Friday. On it, a number people – hotel concierges, Misty’s own sainted muse, Emma, AKA Honeybear, and Americana singer-songwriter Jason Isbell – express concern for Misty’s wellbeing.
People might not know about God’s Favorite Customer, because publicity for it has been dialled down to a whisper. The normally loquacious Josh Tillman has done virtually no interviews around Customer, his fourth as the overthinking roué-sage, Father John Misty, a figure whose last album – the Grammy-winning Pure Comedy – confirmed him as a complicated bard for our untethered age. (Naturally, bathos required that Pure Comedy won a Grammy for “best album package” rather than anything more flattering.)
Context is, for now, restricted to a few scraps of information and this tour, which finds Tillman debuting new material over festival slots and three nights in one small but perfectly formed 1,500-capacity venue in Dublin. It takes Vicar Street a while to warm to Tillman, but by the time he’s at the crescendo of his set, singing about the Bible having been written “by a bunch of woman-hating epileptics”, there are lusty whoops from a crowd who voted to cast off outmoded repressions a few days previously. “Oh boy,” Tillman offers at the song’s end.
You can hardly blame Tillman for feeling unforthcoming about his latest work. God’s Favorite Customer was conceived in a hotel in New York sometime in 2016, where Tillman was apparently going on “pointless benders with reptilian strangers”, as one song has it. All was not well between Misty and Honeybear, the subject of so many of tonight’s loved-up songs, not least one set in another hotel, Chateau Lobby No 4 (in C for Two Virgins) – tonight’s second outing. “Take my last name!” sings Tillman; there is a fanfare of trumpet and French horn.
Fans are heavily invested in Tillman’s happily-ever-after, ever since his breakout album of 2015, I Love You, Honeybear, confirmed that a kind of overexamined, overwhelming love was possible, even for a damaged cynic with attachment issues like Tillman. And if Tillman – a man happy to depict himself on his first Father John Misty album as running around with his trousers round his ankles, after “a Canadian shaman” supplied him with a little too much enlightenment – could find true love, well, there was hope for us all.
Recorded over a swift two-week period last year, God’s Favorite Customer turns away from the human condition – the subject matter of the 75 minutes of Pure Comedy – to focus on one human’s condition: the errant, benighted Misty. Please Don’t Die, runs the bleak title of one of its songs, performed tonight by a 10-piece band. On it, Tillman wonders who will make “the arrangements” if he does: “them” (reptilian strangers) or “me” – the implied Emma. Then he apologises to her for all the “morbid stuff”.
No, God’s favourite customer is not all right. In the video for Mr Tillman, he checks into a hotel, only to find a maquette of the same hotel in the lobby – a weird feature of swish lodgings that, coincidentally, has not been lost on other thoughtful artists of late: check the video for Arctic Monkeys’ Four Out of Five, which also finds the protagonist observing himself in a miniaturised version of his hotel. In Mr Tillman, he signs the hotel register again and again, until his signature is just “ILL MAN”; later, he will plunge from the roof.
This, then, is an album in which the clever-clever chronicler of our ideo-technological downfall does away with his Oculus Rift headset, stops pontificating, and takes what he knows about love and “drowns it in the sink”, because it is so puny. Throughout, love is described as a series of gruesome vignettes: a carcass exploding in the sun, a “constant twitching in my eye” (Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All).
Tonight, Tillman isn’t talking much either, in contrast to those times when he used to deconstruct the entire process of playing a gig as he went along. At one festival set in New Jersey in 2016, Misty didn’t play at all, but harangued his audience about the futility of entertainment – an incident that now seems more or less contemporaneous with those “mindless benders”.
The result tonight is a curiously entertainment-like set, drawing generously from all four Father John Misty albums, but with little to indicate that the plot has moved on significantly from Pure Comedy. Misty has stared into the abyss on this latest record, but the live offering sounds like business as usual. No bad thing: all the rich pomp and circumstance of Pure Comedy remains – the steel guitar and horns and keyboards building baroque epics and affecting country rock. It seems churlish to complain. This lush disgust at human grotesqueries makes for some lovely music. But you can’t help but feel that this new record is something akin to Tillman’s 808s and Heartbreak, an album that might have benefited from a different sound-bed.
As it is, the four new songs slip in gracefully here in Dublin, and Father John Misty hip-swivels and sashays, his voice strong and amusingly pure for such a soiled Cassandra-figure. The comedy of man plays on, for now.