Music Review: Father John Misty’s “I Love You, Honeybear”

Father John Misty

Father John Misty (Image via Sub Pop)

ARTIST: Father John Misty
ALBUM TITLE: I Love You, Honeybear
LABEL: Sub Pop
RELEASE DATE: February 10th, 2015

Who is Father John Misty? He is a sentimental lover, a political pundit, a mystical sage; he’s a cult leader, a drug-addled preacher, a cynical folk rambler, and a thrice-reincarnated musician. Father John Misty was born naked in a tree, on a California afternoon. The man behind the name, Josh Tillman, was following a trail of shrooms down the West Coast, en route from Seattle to Los Angeles’ Lauren Canyon. After finding relative prominence in the Pacific Northwest’s mid-aughts folk scene as Fleet Foxes’ drummer (preceded by his solo, melancholy project J. Tillman), he decided to embark on his own, with only vague phantoms of a plan. While perched in a tree in the buff, Tillman had a hazy hallucinogenic revelation that his innate dark humor was something not to marginalize in his music, but to harness. And thus the musical mission of Father John Misty was born.

His new album, “I Love You, Honeybear” (henceforth ILYHB), is his second album under his new moniker, and arguably his most impressive to date. Tillman traded in the psychedelic honky-tonk of 2012’s “Fear Fun” for lush string arrangements, haunting piano riffs, raucous blues anthems and a startling emotional sincerity. His instrumental oeuvre widened while his lyrical emotional and political investigation became refined, producing a truly superior work. In the two years between the releases, Tillman has ventured through love’s euphoric channels and darker trenches, and returned to present a reflection on his experiences, interwoven with allegorical political commentary. This album is a mesmerizing work of redemption, centered on the question of whether love can endure an inhospitable social climate.

ILYHB begins with the eponymous track, an orchestral, romantic waltz, with the warble of a 3 am barroom sing-a-long: “Everything is doomed and nothing will be spared, but I love you, Honeybear.” The triumphant string section carries us through the second track, and second single from the album, which features a galloping rhythm section and mariachi horns. We visualize Tillman riding in a menacing caravan of horses at high noon on a mission to rescue his one true love, sheets of sand dancing in his wake. The horn solo evokes the outlaw romance of a hot Mexican night, the sort of night that makes one want to “take you in the kitchen, lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in.”

The album’s first high point, of which there are many, comes with “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Town.” At first listen, this sounds like a twee piano refrain Jon Brion penned for manic pixie dream girl flick. Yet, the second and third rotation reveal acerbic lyrics dissonant with the jaunty tone: “She blames her excess on my influence but gladly hovers all my drugs. I found her naked with her best friend in the tub. We sang silent night in three parts which was fun, till she said that she sounds just like Sarah Vaughn, I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on, why don’t you move to the delta. I oblige later on, when you begged me to choke ya.” The tension between light, romantic composition and jaded, sardonic lyrics yields a listening experience that is simultaneously inviting and alienating, while remaining wholly relatable.

Similar moments of hedonistic disdain coexist with sentimental pleasantries throughout the rest of the album. The next track, “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me,” recedes into intimate nostalgia. The pulse of this track mirrors the phenomenon the title alludes to, harmonized moans underscore Tillman’s crooning, the feeling of a lazy afternoon in bed with a lover; “When you’re smiling and astride me, I can hardly believe I found you and I’m terrified by that.” The next few tracks quickly counterbalance this ignorant bliss with a derisive one night stand diatribe; “My baby she does something way more impressive than the Georgia crawl, she blackens pages like a Russian romantic, gets down more often than a blow up doll.” This is followed by a subtly daring folk song filtered through a cinematic prism of strings describing a treacherous affair involving a near fatal overdose, and next a crunchy, bass-driven blues lament about drug abuse and emotional neglect, humming with anxious dissonance.

The album’s ninth track and first single, “Bored In the USA,” shifts the attention from personal narrative to social commentary; the source of the malcontent is revealed to be the malaise and vapidity of consumer culture. Despite the track’s residence in the unoriginal titular terrain between the Clash’s “I’m So Bored With The USA” and Springsteen’s “Born In The USA,” this composition is novel and haunting. Piano chords underscored by strings and peels of laugh tracks form a minimalist whole, complementing the vocals, and accenting the lyric’s message, perfectly. The lyrics are political without being didactic, a panorama of the strange and surreal language of contemporary political blemishes: “subprime loans, craftsmen homes, keep my prescriptions filled, now I can’t get off, but I can kind of deal.” This song is arguably Josh Tillman’s magnum opus as Father John Misty and potentially of his career, delicately weaving together satire and earnestness into a poignant tapestry.

On the final track, “I Went To The Store One Day,” the guitars shimmer and his vocal tone shifts; suddenly Tillman feels closer, warmer and more urgently confessional. His finger picking is intimate, and his vocal register lower. He presents the linear narrative of a relationship: “We met in a parking lot, just buying coffee and cigarettes, firewood and bad wine long since gone. But I’m still drunk and hot wide awake, breathing hard, now in just one year’s time I’ve become jealous … prone to paranoia when I’m stoned.” The lush decadence is gone; he has a message he wants to give us and he wants it be undecorated and clear. This is the kind of song that has an unnamable magic that pierces your sternum and leaves you with tears; it ties everything together, and drops like a bomb. The album’s final line, “All ‘cause I went to the store one day, I’ve seen you around what’s your name,” leaves us with the inception of human connection. It’s a genius conclusion, as we are given a bookend to the multiple narratives we’ve ingested. It’s a moment of sobriety; it almost feels as though the entire album was a dream, and this track is the waking revelation.

The maturation between Father John Misty’s seminal 2012 release “Fear Fun”, and ILYHB is significant.  The earlier release catalogued Tillman’s embrace of satire and cynicism. “I Love You, Honeybear” retains its humor, but engages in a meta-commentary on the love song form, by telling the story of his whirlwind romance in sincere love songs that gently poke fun at the genre’s conventions. This album is a true delight, revealing increasing layers of depth and poignancy with each listen.