Is it possible for a man’s hair to contain as many multitudes as Father John Misty’s?
After establishing the nom de plume in 2012, with the album Fear Fun, Josh Tillman has worn his wavy black hair shorn above the ears, like a louche LA actor auditioning for Reservoir Dogs; slicked back and tied into a mini man-bun, like the new age-y asshole who steals the main dude's girl in a rom-com; long and pushed back, held into place as if in a thin plastic mold; and tousled, unfurled over his head like a genuine rock star, head-banging and jamming out. On the cover of his new album, God’s Favorite Customer, Misty looks contemplative in a nondescript white shirt, his hair combed neatly back and curled over his ears. He looks not unlike a suffering-man-of-the-cloth, the indie rock analog to Ethan Hawke’s contained, abstemious reverend in Paul Schrader’s new movie, First Reformed. He looks like a man who’s fucked up, bad, and is ready to do whatever it takes to redeem himself.
Tillman has described his latest effort as a significantly less cynical “heartache” album, composed in a feverish, depressive burst when he was “living in a hotel for two months.” On the record’s first single, “Mr. Tillman,” he describes his own delusions of grandeur from the point of view of the hotel’s employee: “Mr. Tillman, for the seventh time/We have no knowledge of a film that is being shot outside/Those aren’t extras in a movie; they’re our clientele/No they aren’t running lines and they aren’t exactly thrilled.” In the titular song, Tillman seems to be seeking salvation from his devil-may-care lifestyle—his ongoing compulsion to test “the maxim that all good things have to stop.” The refrain arrives as a gentle plea to a higher power: “Speak to me/Won’t you speak, sweet angel?”
Sonically, the album is as dynamic as previous Father John Misty albums, particularly on songs like the rollicking, defiant, piano-driven ditty, “Date Night.” But the general vibe—as evinced on the vulnerable, cooing ballad, “The Palace”—may be more similar to the mawkish sincerity he exhibits in his early, J. Tillman albums—straightforward, somber, singer-songwriter-y efforts, free of the irony and side-eyed wit that define his Father John Misty albums.
It’s both easy to overstate and hard to understate how important Father John Misty’s look—and, primarily, hair, the most visibly changeable aspect of one’s physical appearance—is to his overall persona. No artist of the past decade has reckoned as compellingly with his own mythology as Tillman—except for maybe Kanye West, who also has a new album out today. He sings about himself as if he’s someone else. I Love You, Honeybear, which Sean Fennessey, writing in 2015 for Grantland, describes “as an attempt to make songs about falling hopelessly in love with someone but with none of the trappings of songs that are about falling hopelessly in love with someone,” is an exercise in autofiction as poignant and beguiling as a Sheila Heti novel. Tillman is so self-aware of himself as a smug asshole that said smug asshole has appeared to take on a completely different self, which he can both seamlessly embody and perceive from a squinty-eyed remove. It’s no wonder he’s been compared to the writer David Foster Wallace; Tillman’s songwriting is the lyrical equivalent of the neurotic footnotes that torment much of Wallace’s best work.
When I saw Misty perform, in 2016, he writhed on stage with sensuous confidence. He seemed to be feeling himself in a cloying way, slyly looking out at the audience as if to say, “You want to fuck me right now. You totally want to fuck me. Don’t you want to fuck me?” I remember thinking, with his long, flowing hair, that he was either a rock star, or doing a very convincing impression of one, and that there probably wasn’t a difference between the two, anyway. The genius of Tillman has always been his gentle subversion of the earnest troubadour—how he undercuts the sincerity of the folk song with wry humor and irony, while avoiding the pratfall of self-parody. His bushy beard and rapturous frontman locks seemed to occupy both those poles simultaneously—the hippie folk singer and the hipster rocker—in a way few musicians have. (Alex Ebert, the head of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, may’ve come close at his peak, though he has none of Tillman’s winking self-awareness or sexual magnetism.)
It will be interesting, then, to see how Tillman wears his hair during his tour for God’s Favorite Customer. Wearing it long like he does has allowed him to change his look from show to show, even song to song; the constant and frequent mutability of it bespeaks an artist who has been engaged, over the last decade, in the manic creation and management of his various personas.
Or, more likely, it just bespeaks someone who wants to change up his hair. Tillman has long invited the speculation we afford to postmodern artists in the digital age, whose intelligence and complexity, combined with a certain rope-a-dope evasiveness, make pinning them down an impossible, if enticing task. Indeed, part of the fun of Father John Misty has always been figuring Father John Misty out.
That includes his invariably beautiful head of hair.