Leonard Cohen is gone, so there’s not much competition: Father John Misty is rock’s most fabulous miserabilist. However much of a nihilistic joker he might have come off on last year’s polarizingly philosophical “Pure Comedy,” he wasn’t kidding around when he promised that its rapid-fire follow-up, “God’s Favorite Customer,” would be “a heartbreak album.” Not that Misty had been pain-avoidant before, but the previous record’s reams of wry intellectualizing made him feel like a guy who’d confined the crisis to his head. Here, he’s moved deep into his chest cavity — and it sounds like an uncomfortable place to live, if a rewarding Airbnb stopover for the rest of us.
On that last epic think piece of an album, the credits might have read: “Music by Elton John; lyrics by Kierkegaard.” One of the pleasures of “God’s Favorite Customer” is that it skews close enough to the simpler essentials of classic, poetic pop that, at times, you can imagine Bernie Taupin as co-writer. Now, as then, Misty — aka Josh Tillman — favors an early ’70s style of singer-songwriter balladry where the piano is struck at a thoughtful quarter-note clip, right before he breaks into his best “Honky Château.” The biggest difference is thematic: He’s gone from being a bit of an existential scold to a loser in love, less concerned with the dissolution of the social-religious order than the breakdown of a marriage, less God-haunted than deeply girl-haunted. And he doesn’t always sound like he’s still standing.
So, by certain standards, Misty/Tillman is venturing into more conventional pop territory, embracing both love lost and writerly economy. The album is about half the length (and word count!) of the last one; it cuts out all the orchestration and most of the jokes. Here, he’ll even sing a line like “Last night I texted your iPhone and said ‘I think I’m ready to come home’” without a punch line to follow. But he can’t completely give up leavening the melancholia. Funny/alarming references to a lost weekend spent living out of a hotel abound, as in the single “Mr. Tillman,” where our hallucinating hero checks into his post-split digs and is told: “Jason Isbell’s here as well and he seemed a little worried about you.” He employs literal gallows humor in “Hangout at the Gallows,” a wake-up anthem that explains why, apart from all-night insomnia, depressives make such good morning people: Folks in the hanging business “get an early start.”
The closest thing to an indie-rock banger, “Date Night,” has Tillman trying out come-on lines on a potential new girl. (Does “I’ll buy you ice cream if you give me your card” work? Let us know, Father.) But the song that follows, “Please Don’t Die,” couldn’t be a starker delineation of how much is at stake in a severe midlife crisis. “One more cryptic message thinking that I might end it / Oh God, you must have woken up to me saying that it’s all too much / I’ll take it easy with the morbid stuff,” he promises before switching POVs to that of a loved one waiting to see how the “pointless benders with reptilian strangers” turn out: “You’ll leave this world in a drunken heap / Who’ll make the arrangements, baby, them or me?”
If you didn’t believe the sense of confessional dread veered at least slightly into fiction, you might join with the fan on his Facebook page who viewed the surrealistic “Mr. Tillman” video, in which the singer tumbles from a tall hotel, and asked: “Should we be worried?” The sheer craft of “God’s Favorite,” though reassures you that Tillman remains very much checked in — not to the video’s “Twilight Zone” boardinghouse but to an abundant creative muse that might sustain anybody through a spirit-crushing estrangement.
An interview he gave last year, before he clammed up about the record, claiming the themes were too personal and raw to discuss, revealed its spontaneous origins, when demos he was working on with Jonathan Rado, of the band Foxygen, began sounding like a real album. (His usual producer, Jonathan Wilson, makes cameo appearances.) Yet it’s no ramshackle affair. The more stripped-down tunes — “The Palace,” “The Songwriter,” the title track — rank among the most beauteous things he’s committed to tape. Two more elaborately produced numbers, “Gallows” and “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” provide a little requisite ballast and live up to any power-pop fan’s Jellyfish fetish. With material this timeless, it’s no wonder Tillman has wide enough appeal to co-headline the Hollywood Bowl: Classic-rock oldsters and the Pitchfork generation can both hold him up as a gold standard.
An album this good is its own happy ending, although the harrowing relationship drama in the grooves doesn’t get one. Tillman does, however, get around to the closest thing to a “We Are the World” he’ll ever do, in “We Are People (and There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That),” where he champions a communion with all of humankind that he’s failed to achieve with his one true love. You might worry for Father John, but in these closing moments of relative uplift, he starts to sound like a pretty good, solidly humanistic chaplain after all.