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As Father John Misty, Tillman has earned a cult following
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In the past several years, Josh Tillman, the singer-songwriter who performs as Father John Misty, has cryptically linked himself to the disappearance of a valuable crystal from a wellness store in Los Angeles, briefly feuded with singer-songwriter Ryan Adams and said he micro-doses LSD as a treatment for anxiety and depression. Around the same time, he also wrote and recorded his acclaimed third solo album, Pure Comedy, a grandiose collection of songs that were self-deprecating, weird (he sings about “bedding” Taylor Swift in a VR simulation) and, at times, beautiful. Now, just a little over a year since its release, he returns with God’s Favorite Customer, a lean 10-song album he recorded just after the release of Pure Comedy.

Tillman’s style has always been both introspective and ironic; his songs wrestle with his ability to be self-aware in an era defined by oversharing. But God’s Favorite Customer finds Tillman at his most earnest. At times he’s still playful, like on the upbeat, folk-rock number “Mr. Tillman,” in which he details checking into a hotel, running into singer-songwriter Jason Isbell and getting chastised for habitually sleeping on the balcony.

But a few songs later, on “Please Don’t Die,” Tillman is on the brink of collapse. It doesn’t sound like a joke: “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.” On “The Songwriter,” he turns the table on the listener, or the critic, solemnly asking “What would it sound like if you were the songwriter/And you made your living off of me?” Still, he’s more wry than fully emo: “Last night I wrote a poem,” he sings on “The Palace,” a poignant tune. “Man, I must’ve been in the poem zone.” Poem zone, indeed.

As prolific as Tillman has been, he’s remained surprising and tough to pin down; at times his cult of personality has run the risk of overwhelming his talents. But on this album the biggest surprise is discovering just how tender he can be. You don’t have to be in on the joke to appreciate it.

This appears in the June 11, 2018 issue of TIME.

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