Josh Tillman's Father John Misty persona is built on a self-constructed mythology; he tells an oft-repeated story involving an artistic revelation sparked by taking ayahuasca with a shaman in Big Sur. Naked and hallucinating in an oak tree, Tillman — who had released seven albums under his birth name and was then the drummer for Fleet Foxes — decided to embrace his wry, sarcastic humor and Father John Misty was born.
"I Love You, Honeybear," his second album under the Misty moniker, is an ambitious masterwork that mines the depths of Tillman's deeply conflicted psychology. In September 2013, he married his wife Emma after meeting her in the parking lot of a Laurel Canyon grocery store two years earlier, and that relationship underpins most of this album. The songs on "Honeybear" document Tillman's attempt to reconcile his cynical worldview with the sincerity that comes with falling in love.
In the bizarrely brilliant press release announcing the album, Tillman wrote that the album moves between two polarities, "the first of which is the belief that the best love can be is finding someone who is miserable in the same way you are and the end point being that love isn't for anyone who isn't interested in finding a companion to undertake total transformation with."
Tillman's lyrics exhibit his signature ironic wit as he explores the total transformation wrought by romance. On "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment," he turns a critical eye on his past life, bemoaning a pseudo-intellectual yuppie who "says, like literally, music is the air she breathes." "I wonder if she even knows what that word means," he deadpans, "well, it's literally not that." It's as much an attack on her misuse of the English language as it a condemnation of his own history of unfulfilling one-night stands.
The first single "Bored in the USA" likewise applies his ironic lens to the concept of the American Dream in the post-recession era. Tillman's disillusionment with the promise of "a sub-prime loan on a craftsman home" is underscored with the canned laughter of a sitcom audience echoing over the track’s bridge. The track is perhaps the best example of why the Father John Misty persona works so well, allowing Tillman to express malaise while at the same time mocking the pretentious archetype of the tortured artist.
What is most striking about "Honeybear," though, is how sentimental it is at times, as genuine emotion breaks past Tillman's defense mechanisms. On the title track, he admits that "everything is doomed," before professing his love to his "honeybear" — a term of endearment he no doubt uses ironically, but the sentiment of love is no less sincere. He confesses, "People are boring / But you're something else completely," on the surprisingly earnest "Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)." "Damn, let's take our chances," Tillman sings over major chords and a bright string arrangement, deciding to commit wholeheartedly to monogamy.
"Honeybear" also finds Tillman pushing the boundaries of the psychedelic folk sound of "Fear Fun," his debut album as his Misty persona. "Chateau Lobby #4" complements his ode to newfound love with an ebullient mariachi band. "True Affection," with its drum machine beat and pulsing synths, recalls the sparse electronics of Sufjan Stevens's "Age of Adz." It's a lush sound that pairs well with the album's romantic narrative.
The album reaches its emotional climax with "Holy S**t," which Tillman wrote on his wedding day. The track builds builds to an "A Day in the Life"-like atonal crescendo as he rattles off a litany of societal issues, from "age-old gender roles" to "mobile lifestyle, loveless sex," as if listing every single argument against the institution of marriage. "Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity," he concludes, "but what I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me." That crescendo is the sound of Tillman throwing out his objections and giving in to love and intimacy.
After an album's length delving into his contradictions of his psyche, marriage ends up bringing out the sincerity in Tillman. Despite all his cynicism and self-loathing, "Honeybear" finds Tillman chipping away at the Father John Misty persona and admitting maybe there's something to this "falling in love" thing after all.
If you like: Fleet Foxes, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman
Tracks: “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” “Bored in the USA,” “Holy S**t”