Album Review: Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear
For Fans Of: Kishi Bashi, Dr. Dog, Foxygen, White Denim, Fleet Foxes,
Review by Noah Haynes-Brooks
Father John Misty is the stage name of Josh Tillman, and like all stage names, it operates as a screen through which the singer-songwriter filters his kindest and cruelest thoughts into poetics which articulate his experience while deflecting, to some degree, the burden of having to actually be the living, breathing incarnation of everything he’s singing about. Father John Misty, the dashing, cult-leader persona whose trials and tribulations we became acquainted with on 2012’s Fear Fun, is a world-weary individual, and a fertile reinvention for Tillman after years releasing projects under his J. Tillman moniker and drumming for Fleet Foxes. Having moved from Seattle to Laurel Canyon, Misty found himself sitting in a tree alone, naked, and pumped full of hallucinogens. He told us all about it on “I’m Writing a Novel,” a song about Josh Tillman writing a novel, wildly hallucinating off drugs given to him by a Canadian shaman, “pants down to his knees”. The line between Tillman and Misty is very much a blurred one, and Tillman’s latest album, I Love You, Honeybear, is so uncomfortably, confrontationally personal that it invites particular scrutiny of its often loathsome, always fascinating narrator. We get to learn a lot about Tillman, the man, through Misty, the character.
In terms of the take-no-prisoners directness of its lyrics, Honeybear casually takes the piss out of polite convention and threatens to alienate listeners with its hell-bent desire to penetrate the anomaly of love with uncompromising, often bitter conviction. It’s a concept album about Misty’s relationship with women in the face of his disillusionment with a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse, and his deep disillusionment with himself. It’s the most brutal, emotionally direct album I’ve heard since Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. It’s also front-to-back gorgeous, packing a set of tunes with the sweeping appeal of Arcade Fire or, yes, Fleet Foxes. From the grand, mournful opening strains of the title track, Honeybear has its sights set on being 2015’s bonafide alt-folk masterpiece, complete with violin flourishes, and lush, full production. It sounds clean, confident, and above all, articulate, beyond anything Tillman has released in the past; a bold step into the spotlight.
The album’s many prickly edges keep it lodged deep under the skin and sustain an atmosphere of calculated discomfort, vacillating often between sweetness and spite. It’s a neat trick, pairing sing-a-long, pastoral melodies with lyrics that often prompt double-takes or winces. The title track, which perfectly establishes the album’s infectious yet distancing tone, features Misty and his lover literally watching the apocalypse from their bedside, hoping without hope that love will keep them safe from the gathering storm. The album takes a one-off left-turn into electronic instrumentation on “True Affection,” whose clicking, mechanical beat perfectly matches the song’s technology-as-relationship-barrier theme. The Radiohead-meets-Postal Service production showcases his versatility and suggests a potentially lucrative alternative career as indie electro-crooner.
Fortunately, Tillman is more often interested in orchestrating simple, elegant guitar figures backed by symphonic production flourishes. He sets out to make songs that are instantly accessible in a musical sense, while also triggering our nostalgia for a more lyrically direct kind of singer-songwriter; more Bob Dylan than, well, Chris Martin. “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” unfolds over a classic drunken piano rag, and it’s easy to picture Tillman stooped over a saloon piano, lamenting his sad-sack sorrows with a bottle of whiskey in hand. As a writer, he’s more interested in painting a clear image than leaving it up to the imagination. He likes to cut right to the core of what he’s thinking, shame be damned. “Strange Encounter” is a self-recriminating look at the error in Misty’s philandering ways, as provoked by the titular encounter with “the girl who just almost died at my house”. It also ends up packing the album’s most shamefully catchy chorus, which exemplifies Tillman’s gift for anachronistically matching balmy tunes with uncomfortably plainspoken lyrics. “Bored in the U.S.A.” is a bummer disillusionment anthem for the ages, boasting lines like “they gave me a useless education/ and a sub-prime loan on a craftsman home” and slyly juxtaposing the song’s liberal-pulpit concerns with a self-deprecating laugh-track.
Tillman makes his Misty character tough to like on purpose. Misty doesn’t suffer bullshitters, even if he is one himself, and readily admits to “telling people jokes to shut them up” and “knowing just what people want to hear”. Listening to Honeybear often feels like strolling through a party with your hyper-critical, misanthropic friend who can’t stop commenting on all the bullshit he sees around him, all of the misconstrued ideas of “love”. This concept sort of works its way into the song “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment,” which features the album’s most venomous vein of dark humor and its most provocative, self-consciously misogynistic lyrics. Even if it’s an affectation of sorts, it’s one that’s sure to breed critics of its questionable taste. “I obliged, later on/ when you begged me to choke you,” will probably garner its fair share of indignant huffs or eye-rolls, depending on who’s listening.
What saves the album from losing its audience is the fact that Tillman is all too painfully aware of Misty’s – or, by extension, his own – faults. The more time one spends with the album, the more clear it seems that Misty’s distasteful view of others is an extension of his own distaste for himself. This is made abundantly clear on “Ideal Husband,” which is the album’s brutal centerpiece, the point where the storm breaks. Over a frenzy of hammering piano and lashing guitar riffs, Tillman lets loose the flurry of pent-up aggression he’s been passively dishing out on the preceding tracks, and the object of his anger is, understandably, himself. Tillman fesses up to it all, “every friendship I’ve neglected/ didn’t call when grandma died/ spend my money getting drunk and high… I’ve said such awful things, such awful things.” Even as the music reaches a frenzied peak, you can sense a hush falling on the room as Tillman utters the three crucial words for defining the album’s mission statement: “Now it’s out.” This is as free and uninhibited as Tillman’s ever sounded on record, and it shakes you to the core.
Honeybear’s warmer moments, though few and far between, are crucial to making us care about its hopeless narrator. “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)” is a pure, heart-on-sleeve ode to first love, with only the faintest tint of Tillman’s grim humor in the throwaway line “lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”. “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” is hilariously blunt with its subject matter (the “oooh/oooh/oooh”s before the chorus are right on the money), but also uncommonly earnest and vulnerable. Tillman believes in the sanctity of beautiful moments, and his mission to portray emotionally honest romance would be incomplete without the acknowledgement of love’s ability to bestow cathartic, blissful release. Tillman recognizes the way relationships exist in flux, feelings of closeness turning into feelings of alienation, and back again, often in quick succession.
The closing track, “I Went to the Store One Day,” is the album’s most subdued and hopeful moment, with Tillman crooning over minimalist acoustic guitar plucks “for love to find us of all people/ I never thought it be so simple”. It’s a sigh of relief after an outpouring of anxiety, aggression, and confusion; not without its trademark Misty snark, but no less grateful for the moment of clarity. “Seen you around/ what’s your name?” goes the last line. It’s hard to say whether this is a step in the right direction for Misty or an invitation for even more heartache and repeated cycles. For Tillman, now a happily married man having just produced the most accomplished album of his career, the outlook is very good indeed.