"Mr. Tillman", a song on Father John Misty's album titled God's Favorite Customer, is, at its most basic level, an encounter between a hotel concierge and a customer. I would not, however, have inducted this song into the prestigious annals of the 2018-19 AP English Spotify Playlist if that was all that could be gleaned from this tune. Luckily for us, Father John Misty has packed so much more than a simple conversation into this poem. It is vital to note that the artist himself has stated that this song is autobiographical; it details actual events which have transpired, and he is the hotel guest in question. Inside these lines, there is cogent apology from the artist himself for his reckless and thoughtless behavior, an indictment of addictive substances, and a reminder of the flaws and pitfalls of our contemporary, consumerist society. Here we go:
The verses of the song are sung from the perspective of the concierge, and we are treated to a hyper-polite, sterile, almost condescending tone right from the start.
And oh, just a reminder about our policy
Don't leave your mattress in the rain if you sleep on the balcony
Okay, did you and your guests have a pleasant stay?
What a beautiful tattoo that young man had on his face.
Initially, it seems as if the concierge is worried for his guest’s well-being, giving friendly “reminders” about Mr. Tillman’s breach of hotel policy. However, a truly responsible hotel employee would have responded to the removal and damaging of property in a more serious manner, and this sort of response would actually have done more to right the irresponsible and immature actions of the guest. Instead, the concierge offers a light warning, which only motivates similar unhealthy action in the future. I would venture to say that the concierge encourages this sort of guest behavior, since it is much more profitable for the business to offer a “good time” to its guests, and then have them deal with the consequences after they’ve sobered up. Sure enough, the wily employee quickly erases the brief scolding from Mr. Tillman’s mind by drawing his attention back to the guests he entertained in his hotel room, highlighting the “beautiful tattoo” which adorned the face of one of the party-goers. Disguised beneath the smarmy hospitality, a green-eyed creature lurks, manipulating its prey and inciting exactly the response it desires from the victim.
Yet Father John Misty does not pass all of the blame onto the system which facilitates these destructive, hedonistic attitudes. He acknowledges that a large part of the onus falls on him. The chorus appears twice in the song, and is virtually identical, save for one key word which I will identify later on. In the chorus, Tillman outlines his idyllic mindset:
I'm feeling good
Damn, I'm feeling so fine
I'm living on a cloud above an island in my mind
Oh baby, don't be alarmed this is just my vibe
No need to walk around
No, it's not too bad a climb
Father John Misty’s use of hazy diction emphasizes the unhealthiness of Mr. Tillman’s disposition. Words such as island, cloud, and vibe evoke a sort of carefree, but self-jeopardizing lifestyle which afflicts many artists and creators who have attained that precarious plateau of status, and all the resources which come with that position. His half-hearted reassurances to the concierge belie deep-rooted insecurities which stimulate a further need to justify his laissez-faire attitude.
I mentioned before that the two choruses are almost, but not complete copies of each other. The last word in each chorus may, or may not be the same. Father John Misty’s vague rendition makes it nigh on impossible to distinguish climb from crime. This ambiguity lends another layer of meaning to the piece; if the last word is indeed “crime,” the entire song takes on a sense of guilt, for Mr. Tillman feels the need to defend the very legality of his actions. Whether this is a traditional or moral sense of legality is not clear, but I’d like to think the artist intentionally leaves it open for debate.
I think the plethora of dichotomies in this poem are exactly what lends it its meaning. Between defiance and guilt, confidence and insecurity, hospitality and condescension, Father John Misty lays out his apology. It is up to us to accept it.