Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
Witty, intelligent, charming, casually self-deprecating, sharply dressed and only reluctantly sincere, Josh Tillman is undoubtedly a man who lets his music speak for itself. Having parted ways with extravagantly hirsute folk-rock icons Fleet Foxes back in 2012, the band’s former drummer returns with one of the most lyrically absorbing albums you can hope to get your hands on this year. Still boasting a beard of almost tropical luxuriance, Tillman shows an intuitive grasp of writing psychedelic folk tunes with lyrics wickedly cynical yet searingly honest and at times piercingly heartfelt.“Love is just an institution based on human frailty” he bellows on one of the album’s more perplexingly uplifting moments; his most striking attribute as a songwriter is to make such seemingly bleak and bitter sentiments feel profoundly cathartic.
Father John Misty is essentially an alter-ego born of drug-addled road trips which stemmed from Tillman’s need to rediscover his zeal for songwriting. Having spent years attempting to define himself as “an obscure singer-songwriter” in the mould of other respected but relative unknowns as Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons, his foray into this latest solo project sees the enigmatic songwriter, to paraphrase his own words, stop licking his wounds and find something worth singing about. Also describing his marriage as the opportunity to “get out of the morass of ambivalence”, I Love You, Honeybear perfectly intertwines sensibility and world-weariness, avoiding the temptation to be either too self-absorbed or overly defeatist.
Tillman conjures up elaborate melodic cadences that almost sound as though he’s trying to force too many syllables into each line, yet somehow manages to make his vocal takes sound perfectly balanced and effortlessly cool to boot. The title track is a melange of steamy sexuality and almost suffocating pessimism, yet ultimately manages a reassuring choral repetition, “Everything is doomed and nothing will be spared, but I love you, honey bear”. When You’re Smiling and Astride Me sees Tillman in vitriolically self-critical mood “You see me as I am, it’s true. Aimless, fake drifter, and the horny man-child mama’s boy to boot”, a sentiment he dips into freely across the album.
Musically he also stretches himself while never really sounding particularly far out of his alt-trip-folk comfort zone. Testament to Tillman’s seemingly endless versatility, the Death Cab For Cutie-esque True Affection ambles in on scratchy programmed beats and bleeping synths, over which his voice soars unrestrained, while the glorious swirls of strings on Strange Encounter make it sound reminiscent of some Hollywood movie soundtrack interspersed with jabs of distorted guitar. Similarly discordant tempo changes are found between I Went to the Store One Day, anchored by a gently finger-picked acoustic guitar that echoes the delicate songwriting of Don McLean, and The Ideal Husband, a brash roar of relentlessly hammered keyboards and murky, distorted guitars.
Lap steel is also deployed subtly but to great effect, never becoming ‘too country’, as exemplified on Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow, a ferocious warning message to any would-be lotharios attempting to woo the resentful musician’s partner while he’s off on tour. Bored in the USA is undoubtedly one of the album’s standout tracks, lyrically elaborate and instrumentally restrained, it is unapologetically critical of middle-class, middle-age apathy and equally scathing of modern American culture, with an unsettling laughter track and gradual swell of ironic applause that bring the track, with it’s ambiguous Springsteen titular reference, to a bewitching climax.
Put simply, Tillman is a realist. His latest musical venture may have erupted from some pretty outlandish experiences but this is a musician who is both deeply self-aware while demonstrating an increasing acceptance of his own view of the world and his place in it. His job may be to mock and satirise, but he’s damn good at it. And, at the end of the day, this is a man finally coming to terms with the idea of enjoying his life.
Words: Henry Wickham