Alittle boy, sucking on a watermelon candy, tags along with his mother as she shops in JC Penney’s. He begins to choke on the candy; his mother holds him close and screams for help. He’s long desired his mother’s loving attention, and she’s finally giving it. Over their heads the store radio plays Fleetwood Mac—“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies…”—into the ears of the terrified, dying boy. He doesn’t die, but from now on he will always suspect that life and death are a joke.
Hearing Tillman turn his wounds, rebukes, sins, and questions into song has given me more patience for all the unsolved parts of my own heart—the complicated, troubling things that kitschy versions of Christianity can’t tolerate.Over the years he develops a contrarian streak and a killer sense of humor. The adults in his life tell him he’s filled with sin and possessed by demons, that he won’t survive to adulthood because the end of the world is near, and there will be hell to pay. He goes through the motions—he is slain in the Spirit and speaks in tongues—but he doesn’t experience God personally. As a teenager playing drums in the church worship band, he sends people into spiritual ecstasies (while he rolls his eyes). His parents ban secular music, but he sneaks in some Bob Dylan. He hides his heart far, far away to keep it safe. He drops out of a Christian college after two years, and heads west to find his own way. He leaves the church and doesn’t look back. Actually, that’s not true—he leaves the church, but is constantly looking back, whether he wants to or not. Recalling the past, he says, “I made a decision as a child that I would never let anyone tell me that I was invalid or inauthentic, or that my experiences were.”
There’s much more to be said about the life of musician Josh Tillman, but its beginning sets the stage for his lifelong flight from all things phony, toward what is genuine, true, and beautiful. After creating seven depressing and obscure folk albums as J. Tillman, he became a drummer with the band Fleet Foxes for four years. He left disillusioned in 2012, and released the solo album Fear Fun later that year under the new and intentionally ridiculous moniker “Father John Misty.” As the name suggests, this musical endeavor was entirely different. In a transformative experience, sitting naked in a tree in Big Sur, high on mushrooms and hallucinating, Tillman confronted “the great cosmic joke. I’d wanted to be perceived as this spiritual person, but the reality was me running about with my pants around by my knees.” Tillman decided it was time to embrace his inner trickster and bring that into his music. “That’s my direct line to the sublime, and I needed to use it. In childhood, my humour had always been maligned as satanic.” Instead of the bogus authenticity of his forced childhood worship experiences, or the fake miserable singer-songwriter archetype of J. Tillman, he was finally going to inhabit and befriend this part of himself, the playful, ironic, and “authentically bogus” Father John Misty.
Under this name he’s released three more albums—I Love You, Honeybear (2015), Pure Comedy (2017), and God’s Favorite Customer (2018). His music has been compared to that of Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, and Leonard Cohen, and is reminiscent of 1970s west coast folk-rock. But for all the comparisons, Tillman is the only songwriter I know who uses his lyrical humor in the service of very serious matters. At the same time that he gave himself permission to be funny, he made a commitment that he would also be useful; his music would serve people.
In the spicy language of academic and social critic Camille Paglia, “Whenever there is a taboo, it is the absolute obligation of the artist and the intellectual [and here I would add, the prophet and the comedian] to seize on that taboo and shatter it. In other words, all these tender places in the contemporary ideology, we must push on them, palpate them, make people squeal.” Tillman has this knack for palpating culturally tender places and making people squeal, sometimes with delight, sometimes with outrage. His humor walks that razor thin line between the desecration of the sacred and the renewal of the sacred by interrogating phony versions of it. “You don’t put energy into drawing things into question if you don’t love them,” he says.
While Tillman has traits of the artist, the intellectual, the prophet, and the comedian, the fact that he can put on such an entertaining show may obscure from new listeners his depth of insight and moral concern. As a trickster, Father John Misty is regularly misunderstood as advocating for the very things his humor lampoons. He mocks the American gods of Entertainment, Consumerism, and Fundamentalism the way the prophet Elijah mocked Baal, but he does so with a catchy tune and symbolically kitschy props (in “Total Entertainment Forever”). Tillman scorns Hollywood’s pop “confections” like John the Baptist censured King Herod’s corruption, but he does so while dancing like Salome. And unlike most cultural critics, he reserves his harshest judgments for himself, offering up his own head on the platter of complicity.
Tillman is ambiguous: he’s too stoned, provocative, and profane for the church; he’s too serious, moral, and confessional for Hollywood. As familiar as Tillman is with his own shadow, he has keen eyes for seeing into other hearts; his ruthless humor is a double-edged sword, and cuts both the right and left sides of the aisle, the religious conservatives and the liberal hipsters he rubs shoulders with (sometimes even in the same song, as in “Holy Sh*t”). He’s used to kick-back from those who are offended and confused by him: “You can either think that I’m an [expletive], or you can accept that I’m as complicated of a human being as anyone else, and then get inside the world of [my songs], and empathize with me.”
Tillman’s humiliating confessions are just as much his musical trademark as his humor. While his earliest confessional songs on Fear Fun contain more romp and revelry than regret, his later, more mature songs are an invitation to empathy and grace. The good exists as a shadow cast by his misadventures, failures, and parable-parodies. He seldom sings directly at the good, but manages nevertheless to conjure an image of it, however obliquely. Whatever the good is, it’s not what I just did last night. Whatever love is, I’m terrible at it. Whatever wisdom is, it’s something better than my intellectual sarcasm. And as soon as he’s caught in the act of caring deeply in an interview, he’ll interrupt himself with an ironic comment or smirk, putting that tenderness in brackets to keep the sacred at bay. He has a love of truth, goodness, and beauty, but he’s somewhat shy about it, and his constant humor protects him from the accusation of sentimentality.
Tillman reveals the worst of his character in his musical stories, while the best of him—his voice and melodies, his insight, humor, and writing—frames his failures with beauty. In “Leaving LA”, a 13 minute folk hymn in which he walks through his fears and failures, he is accompanied by strings so tender, it’s like hearing the voice of God’s forgiveness in real time, responding to each confessional offering. Framing ugliness with beauty is more authentic for Tillman than framing beauty with an ugly, failed effort (e.g. fluffy pop music created by committee to be lucrative and radio-ready, but it’s about God, and meant to be taken seriously). In his mind it’s better to be genuinely sordid (but honest) before the sacred, than to produce kitsch in its honor without realizing it. In the words of philosopher Roger Scruton,
Real beauty can be found even in what is seedy, painful, and decayed. Our ability to tell the truth about our own condition, in measured words and touching melodies, offers a kind of redemption from it.… If we can grasp the emptiness of modern life, this is because art points to another way of being.… It describes what is seedy and sordid in words so resonant of the opposite, so replete with the capacity to feel, to sympathize and to understand, that life in its lowest forms is vindicated by our response to it.
Tillman sees the inescapable ambivalence of the human experience: it’s pure comedy and horrific tragedy at the same time, an insight drilled into him at the age of six in JC Penney’s. And he isn’t out to solve this mystery; in his view, music is “not a delivery system for answers, or to make complex issues less complex.” He doesn’t resolve the questions his songs raise; he lets them sit and (depending on your perspective) fester or bloom. The goal, though, is that you let the question grow into something meaningful and transformative. To encounter his more serious songs is to allow them to trouble you. His Job-like rebuke of the Almighty in “When the God of Love Returns, There’ll Be Hell to Pay”, is one of his most beautiful and troubling explorations. “Being someone who cannot get Christianity out of my system—I no longer even really want to—it’s an intimate thing to question God,” Tillman says. “If this is truly my maker, and I have an audience with this guy in the way that Christianity claims I do, am I limited to a certain conversation? Are there talking points I have to run through or can I have an intimate conversation with my God?”
And this is why—no matter his graphic language, depression-stoked benders, and religious satire—he still orbits Christianity with a gravity he can’t escape. His critiques and questions show how deeply he values truth and genuine human connection. When he mocks religion, and Christianity in particular, it’s largely because he assumes all people actually worship themselves, and pious religiosity can blind a person to the gods they really serve. He’s not criticizing the church for worshiping God; he’s criticizing them for worshiping themselves without knowing it. It’s the oblivious phoniness of idolatry that he can’t stand, not the idea of God per se. Tillman has many cutting remarks about the church, and many piercing questions for God, but he hopes Christians would be relieved, grateful even, that at least someone is talking about these issues.
For those offended by Tillman’s use of Christian iconography on his album covers and Scriptural allusions in his lyrics, it’s worth noting that the version of Christianity he skewers is tied intimately to capitalism, consumerism, and entertainment: it’s an American god, a bastard child of evangelicalism and mass-produced kitsch culture. Tillman’s judgments aren’t broad enough to devastate other branches of the Christian family tree. “Here’s the thing that drove me insane,” Tillman relates. “What is it about Christianity, or this version of it, that is so compatible with late-era capitalism, the cult of the self, the commercial-humanist idea of individuality? Christianity is an adaptable avatar for these social movements. It’s very good at resembling the scenery.”
This version of Christianity may indeed be contaminated with something counterfeit and fake, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless: Tillman has been diagnosed with PTSD, in part from his childhood “spiritual” experiences, and he suffered a panic attack upon re-entering a church too soon, over a decade ago (though he has since gotten enough distance to no longer be triggered). He medicates his depression and anxiety with micro-doses of LSD, cyclical bouts of heavy drinking, and an abundance of cigarettes. “Anything you hear me say about religion in my songs is incredibly hard-won,” he says. “I have license to be even more judgmental about it than I am. And it’s not purely conceptual. This is me. And there’s nothing ‘cool’ about it. There is something weirdly, cellularly conservative in me. You can only run so far.” G. K. Chesterton said that while the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it, the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. After all these years, Tillman appears to be getting enough distance: the religious allusions in his recent music are less critical, and more like a person patting himself down, feeling around for a long lost set of keys that may just come in handy about now.
His latest album, God’s Favorite Customer, has fewer of his playful or biting witticisms and more raw, painful regret. He’s bottomed-out on more than one occasion, dealing with the fallout of fame and the ways it can strain a marriage. GFC came from an experience of despair (two months in a hotel strung out on substances); it was followed by an encounter with grace, the details of which he hasn’t elaborated on publicly. The music video “Please Don’t Die”, in which Tillman falls into an underworld full of dancing corpses, is sung partly from his wife Emma’s perspective, as she pleads with him to leave behind his self-destructive ways. She appears at the end to pull him out of the grave, like Beatrice rescuing Dante from hell. The title track “God’s Favorite Customer” could be a soundtrack for the prodigal son: he’s on the straits, his last friend has ditched him, he’s hungover, and out of options. And his thoughts begin to turn toward home: “Speak to me / Won’t you speak, sweet angel? / Don’t you remember me? / I was God’s favorite customer / But now I’m in trouble.”
My sense is that the sharp, anguished way Tillman questions God and the scorn he directs toward religious believers doesn’t come from Nietzschean arrogance, but from the terror of the little choking boy who needed God to be good, who needed his life to be sacred and valid and not a joke, who needed to feel loved by his parents and at home in the world, who needed trustworthy and rational voices to guide him; and what he heard instead were “sweet little lies.”
That’s when I first saw the comedy won’t stop for
Even little boys dying in department stores.1
A wound that deep, a question that troubling (and that was inflicted in a church context), doesn’t have a theological quick-fix, though it has been for Tillman a wellspring of much beauty, creativity, exploration, and a desire to broaden the tent of Christianity so it can make room for people whose experiences don’t fit a certain mold.
Hearing Tillman turn his wounds, rebukes, sins, and questions into song has given me more patience for all the unsolved parts of my own heart—the complicated, troubling things that kitschy versions of Christianity can’t tolerate. Like Tillman, I am trying “to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue,” instead of insisting on immediate answers “which cannot be given [to us] because [we] would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps [we] will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”2