Joshua Tillman concocted the Father John Misty persona after a particularly lengthy psychedelic experience in the California desert, or at least that’s what he said in a Sub Pop interview. This lovely little anecdote seems to fit into a larger narrative (either one of grand artistic triumph or one of tragic misdirection), so writers feel obligated to mention this point each time Tillman decides to step back into the commercial spotlight. Critics and fans also like to harp on his relatively short-lived position as percussionist for folk revivalists Fleet Foxes even though Tillman himself insists that such people have overestimated his centrality to the group. Though I Love You, Honeybear and Helplessness Blues are leagues apart stylistically, they’re certainly united by a common foundation of acoustic guitars and prettily harmonized male voices.
Father John Misty’s latest effort is fueled by the folk spirit of Simon and Garfunkel – simultaneously egalitarian and interpersonal – updated with shinier production, louder drums and – most importantly – angrier lyrics. Bob Dylan’s influence marks the record as well, but that can be said of most art made after 1966. “Chateau Lobby #4” is propped up with the disjointed lyrics of a burgeoning electric-era tune with a mariachi horn coda that comes sailing in from left field. “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” has the mid-paced drift and sparse guitar/bass interplay that characterizes the best tracks of Desire, while the track’s layered “oohs” and “aahs” would have fit perfectly in the lush second half of Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush. The lyrics “You see me as I am, it’s true / A homeless fake drifter and the horny manchild,” are perplexing given the adoption of the persona, but they demonstrate something approaching vulnerability, and it’s disarmingly ear-catching for sure, almost like a vague, tacit admission. It’s not the only context in which Tillman’s lyrics will knowingly throw the listener for an intellectual loop.
Despite the album’s title and obvious folk hero influences, it’s not all prim and pretty and devoid of original ideas. By folk rock standards, I Love You, Honeybear isn’t even mostly that. Tillman metabolizes the ethical grit and muddier tones of Howlin’ Wolf in a similar way to contemporary J. Roddy Walston on “The Ideal Husband.” And of course, with the raucous stomp of the blues come the blues themselves. In a sudden avalanche of guilt, Tillman reflects on “Every woman I have slept with / Every friendship I’ve neglected / Didn’t call when grandma died / I spend my money getting drunk and high.” Rough, man. A honky-tonk piano cheerily plinks along over the top of the depression-fueled ruckus to keep the tune from sinking too deep into the trench of self-loathing, though. There’s feedback and sirens and yelling and maybe a baby in an oven in there somewhere. It’s the album’s highlight, and really just a good time all around.
“Bored in The USA” is self-aware, towel-throwing anthem in the theatrical spirit of Tom Waits that features canned laughter and the singer’s glorious beseechment “Save me white Jesus!” “Bored” and preceding song “True Affection” make strange bedfellows, considering the shuffling electronic percussion and bleating synthesizer loops that kick off the latter. The effect is a tad bit like Sufjan Stevens when Tillman travels to the outer reaches of his delicate voice over the malfunctioning circuitry.
The brilliantly named and lazily strummed ballad “Nothing Good Ever Happens at The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” features a slide guitar so quiet and buried in the sonic background that it almost sounds apologetic. Tillman’s mentions of “Drinkin’ halls” and “the Georgia Crawl” (which I can only assume is some sort of old timey dance and/or sex position) suggests the song was written for an old west saloon-type setting . . . right up until the singer informs us that his baby “Gets down more than a blow-up doll.” Herein lies the crux of the thematic issue that animates I Love You, Honeybear – the lyrics, I mean, not the blow-up doll.
Father John Misty seems caught between the conflicting urges to craft a rustic, antiquated world all to himself and to write biting, self-aware satire with contemporary, instantly relatable images. It’s the sound of the buzzing six-string clashing with programmed drums; Tillman just can’t decide which type of bitter white male misanthropy he wants to purport and stick to. Better the elitist altruism of Henry David Thoreau or the base cynicism of Charles Bukowski? It’s self-indulgent, but it kind of keeps you on your toes. I Love You, Honeybear feels like the soundtrack to a genuine personal conflict rather than commercial floundering, and makes for a supremely engaging listen. Oh, and the music ain’t half bad either.
When Tillman released Fear Fun in 2012, he told Richard Metzger and Casey Wescott “I had this realization that all I had really done with it was lick my wounds for years and years, and become more and more isolated from people and experiences. I don’t even like wound-licking music, I want to listen to someone rip their arm off and beat themselves with it.”
That’s an interesting notion.
But by the end of I Love You, Honeybear Tillman’s beating both himself and his audience over the head with his newfound shroom-inspired cynicism. In “Holy Shit” he clumsily proclaims that “Love is just an institution based on human frailty,” which sounds really profound until you think about it. But it’s really okay. Fans of other melancholy folk bands like Phosphorescent and Great Lake Swimmers will hear familiar musical textures and even some congruent lyrical themes, but Father John Misty seems to view even his own artistic style with an air of detachment. “What’s your paradise got to do with Adam and Eve?” he asks near Honeybear’s finale.
You should not be ashamed to admit it if you have no idea.