Album Review: Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Local Music, Album Reviews
Jacob Webb

Unless Kanye West decides to use the phrase on his next album, there will only be one love song with the lyric "fingering oblivion" released in 2015 and it's the title track to Father John Misty's sophomore effort, I Love You, Honeybear. It is probably the only time that phrase will ever be used romantically, in song or otherwise. But that's just the unique love language the man otherwise known as Josh Tillman uses on the album, crafted and delivered with the enthusiasm of a middle schooler who just had his first kiss, the vocabulary of an underappreciated adjunct professor, the voice of a wannabe-casanova '60s crooner, and the musical scope of Harry Nilsson at his most elegantly wasted; it's an understatement to say it is singular in its candid, schmaltzy, gloriously ridiculous greatness. For the majority of his career, Josh Tillman was swinging and missing at making his own magnum opus of lovelorn longing, but somehow, through acid and desert and drumming and trips to the store for cigarettes, he's made his masterpiece by giving up on making his own For Emma, Forever Ago and embracing his inner romantic to make something more For Emma, Now and Forever.

To put it simply, Tillman's third act is one of music's most compelling and bizarre stories. Leaving a hyperconservative Evangelical Christian family to move to Seattle in the early 2000s, Tillman released seven albums of stark and quiet folk songs under the moniker J. Tillman. Although those albums never found a wide audience outside of Seattle, it eventually led to him playing the drums in Fleet Foxes for four years. Convinced that the peak of his musical career was behind him, he went and did what anyone else would do – go out to the desert, get loaded, and write aimlessly and pretentiously. Partnered with Laurel Canyon MVP Jonathan Wilson as a collaborator, that experience produced 2012's Fear Fun. A pretentious, loquacious, and stunning reinvention, Fear Fun was the complete opposite of the archetypical indie rock album: it didn't shy away from sex, rolled its eyes at every possible turn, thoroughly mined '70s country music, and most importantly, wasn't the least bit earnest. In a live setting, Tillman became a tour de force, simultaneously playing the role of the demon-possessed singer and the preacher trying to exorcise him. It was baffling that the same man could sit behind the drums in Fleet Foxes for four seconds, much less four years. Considering all of the bands who are (still) trying to make a career out of shamelessly swiping from Fleet Foxes, it was exhilarating to watch a guy who was actually in Fleet Foxes succeed by completely rejecting all of those tropes.

And then, after all of that, Tillman had his biggest change yet when he met filmmaker Emma Garr at the store one day and fell and love with her. They later married and moved to New Orleans, and after he wrote a set of songs about their relationship for his next record, Garr told Tillman the songs weren't honest enough. So, instead of wearing his heart on his sleeve, he went ahead and vomited the damn thing up and then threw the musical kitchen sink at it, resulting in I Love You, Honeybear. That's essentially a summation of the album, but not an effective one, simply because since Tillman doesn't do succinct. He overthinks, agonizes, ponders some more, and then waxes poetic about whatever is on his mind, and as this album makes clear, there's only ever one thing on his mind these days: love. Love is a complex thing to say the least, so on I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman accordingly approaches it from all angles with an impressive, diverse set of styles. Surprisingly, the country influence that defined Fear Fun is largely absent here; it's replaced with, among other things, shimmering mariachi horns, R&B vocals, and most frequently, lush, lavish strings. "Bored In The USA" and the title track would be smothered by their schmaltzy orchestrations if Tillman didn't support them with his all-or-nothing vocal performance. When Emma told him that the first set of songs weren't vulnerable enough, Tillman was smart enough to see that "vulnerable" as a musical descriptor doesn't necessarily align with the acoustic, sad guy music that he played for years. So he took on every other musical approach he could handle, and for every stylistic turn he takes on I Love You, Honeybear – and there are a lot of them – Tillman matches his arrangements with an equally intense vocal performance. On "True Affection", he wrestles through the anxiety of wanting to see his lover in person rather than through a screen with a falsetto-heavy performance that comes off as sincere, rather than yet another pedantic diatribe about the digital divide. He rolls his eyes at her worst qualities on "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment", and then precisely reminds himself of her best ones on the slow jam "When Your Smiling And Astride Me". He follows the album's gooey romantic opening section by spending the album's middle third losing his mind in a bar ("Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow"), lying awake at night trying to figure out what the hell is going on ("Strange Encounter"), and then starting his morning by going to her house and making a frazzled, touching proposal to her ("The Ideal Husband"). At each of these moments, Tillman oozes self-loathing, sex, regret, euphoria, and whatever else he can muster. It's Tillman's willingness to pour out his heart and soul in such a messy and bizarrely touching manner that makes I Love You, Honeybear so great.

The album peaks in its final two songs, the existential freak out "Holy Shit" and the plaintive closer "I Went To The Store One Day". The former, which Tillman wrote on his wedding day, goes through a long list of stressful concepts (including ancient holy wars and infotainment) before coming to the realization that although life is relatively brief and insignificant in the grand scheme, "what does it really all have to do with you and me?" Tillman sings the final line with a mix of relief and confusion that bleeds into the final track. The most straightforward and literal – and, not coincidentally, maybe the most beautiful – thing Tillman has ever put to tape, "I Went To The Store One Day" is a wide-eyed recollection of the first time he met Emma (on a run to the store for cigarettes and cheap booze, in case it wasn't obvious) and the effect it's had on his life since. It crystallizes the fascination Tillman has with his relationship with his wife, but as much as he overanalyzes it, it also shows how much he strives to put all everything else away and simply enjoy it. Behind all the swearing, sweating, and sex, it's just him and Emma, and after 44 minutes of frantic examination of himself, the concept of romance, and how he can fathom that concept, he's at peace with it. Walking with him through the journey to get to that point makes up something even more satisfying than Fear Fun, as well as one of 2015's Album of the Year frontrunners. Josh Tillman is in love and he doesn't care who knows it. He's going to shout it from the rooftops and every festival stage from here to eternity regardless, so why not come along with him? You're going to want to be there if this guy has kids.

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