Album Analysis | Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
Josh Tillman's second album under the Father John Misty name marries love and earnest devotion to his sardonic worldview, accompanied by a feast of grandiose and decorative instrumentation.
I Love You, Honeybear, Josh Tillman’s second album under the stage name Father John Misty, was released in 2015 and is the successor to 2012’s Fear Fun. Josh Tillman had a long history as a singer-songwriter releasing several albums of earnest folk songs under the moniker J. Tillman (as well as a several-year-long stint drumming for seminal indie-folk band Fleet Foxes). Tillman’s persona of Father John Misty seems to blur the line between fictional character and Josh Tillman’s authentic self - much has been written and pondered around the degree of separation between Misty and Tillman, but to me the distinction seems minimal, the Misty character essentially an exaggerated version of Tillman himself.
The “Father John Misty” name and persona were born under bizarre circumstances. A depressed and spiritually lost Tillman took a Fear-and-Loathing-style road trip “down the coast with nowhere to go” in a van stocked with “enough mushrooms to choke a horse”. He ended up “naked in a tree” in Big Sur, California, experiencing a psychedelic rebirth as a semi-fictional, earnest yet tongue-in-cheek drifter named Father John Misty. Here he proceeded to occupy himself for a while exploring the great “amusement ride” of Los Angeles and its surrounding territories, while writing a novel (as yet unpublished) and recording a bunch of songs about the whole experience.
These songs became Fear Fun, Tillman’s debut release as Father John Misty. I’m not about to add to the many speculations on the level of truth in these songs and the stories that inspired and birthed them- only to comment on what made that record stand out among the horde of other folksy Americana-themed offerings. Of course, the tunes and performances are top-notch, and Tillman’s voice is that uncommon combination of both technically impressive and entirely distinctive, but what stands out on Fear Fun is the storytelling. The imagery of the lyrics evokes such a vibrant depiction of Misty’s intoxicated Californian escapades that you feel like you’re experiencing the whole adventure with him, and his knowing humour and self-satire offsets the Kerouac-ian tropes.
So, after this stellar debut welcomed us to the weird world of Father John Misty, where was there to go? As the story goes, Misty’s wild exploits were put to an abrupt stop by that most unexpected force: love.
After Josh Tillman’s meeting and marriage to photographer Emma Elizabeth Garr, we would have forgiven him for either writing another (likely highly fictionalised) account of the misadventures of a bohemian bachelor, or returning to the J. Tillman name and releasing earnest folk songs about domestic bliss/early-middle-age ennui.
As it would turn out, in his own way he did both. 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear was both a bold departure from, and a continuation of, the Misty story. Songs like The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment and The Ideal Husband see the married Misty reminiscing on his days of whiskey and womanising with both nostalgia and condemnation - he wouldn’t change his new life, but goddamn do you get the sense he misses the old one. The transition from one state to another and the joys, frustrations, regrets and hopes that come with it are all on display here, and form the emotional core of this record.
The bulk of Honeybear’s songs are about his relationship with Emma, and the ways that relationships alter the worldview for better and worse. Feelings of love and admiration are placed next to jealousy and possessiveness as two inseparable sides of the same coin- on the country-esque lilt of Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow, Misty both calls his lover a “genius” and shows anger that men who make advances on her “forget what’s mine”. Instead of seeming like a contradiction, these opposing forces of light and dark are shown to exist simultaneously. Love isn’t all smiles and roses here- it’s “mascara, blood, ash and come” too!
The dark side never fully takes over, though. There are so many genuinely heartfelt expressions of love on this album it almost crosses the line into being sickly and uncomfortable for the average fan to listen to- although Misty is fully aware of this, flirting with and skirting that line with humour and intent. On Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins), nestled within surreal lyrics about “ostrich and cobra wine” and wedding dresses “someone was probably murdered in”, he states that “people are boring but you’re something else completely, damn, let’s take our chances”. On the grand epic Holy Shit, amid sweeping strings and pleading, heart-on-sleeve vocals, the cynical Misty decides to choose to banish cynicism and embrace hope in what seems to be the album’s mission statement:
“Love is just an institution based on human frailty
What's your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?
Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
What I fail to see is what that's gotta do with you and me”
All throughout the album Tillman’s philosophical words tell the honest, warts-and-all story of love. In addition to Tillman being a first-class lyricist, the music on this album is second-to-none, with Jonathan Wilson’s production bringing Tillman’s songs to life in rich detail. From the widescreen melodrama of the opening (and title) track to the final isolated vocal of sonically-subdued yet emotionally naked closing ballad I Went to the Store One Day, the melodies, harmonies and arrangements are lush, captivating and expertly executed. Chateau Lobby… marries a psychedelic Sixties folk sound to string and horn sections as richly ornate and glittering as the titular hotel. When You’re Smiling and Astride Me uses gospel-inspired “oh-oh-oh” backing vocals to create a musical love letter befitting of the most respected soul artists. The huge crescendo of Holy Shit gives way to the end-credits-roll of the gently finger picked acoustic guitar of I Went to the Store One Day.
Not to be overlooked on Honeybear is the album artwork by artist Stacey Rozich: a painted scene of a baby Josh Tillman (no, seriously) at the breast of an angelic Madonna figure surrounded by grotesque, demonic creatures. The resemblance to a demented reimagining of the Nativity would probably break blasphemy laws in less liberal parts of the world, yet there is a clear artistry to the image, evoking a Renaissance-era fresco. The artwork is both stylish, and a perfect visual representation of Misty’s knowing, self-conscious tendencies for self-glorification.
Father John Misty would go on to create two more albums in the next three years. Honeybear’s successor Pure Comedy would expand the scope in every way possible - the lyrics moving beyond the personal to explore the very concept of humanity, the running time almost doubling, and the songs draped in orchestral splendour. God’s Favourite Customer stripped things back again (inevitably, as Pure Comedy stretched ambitious, theatrical songwriting to its absolute limit) with a collection of downbeat, surreal jams detailing what can be most euphemistically described as “a rough patch” in the relationship so celebrated on Honeybear, and in Tillman/Misty’s own psyche.
Every album Father John Misty has put out has been somewhat of a masterpiece in its own right, and it’s hard to find a figure in modern songwriting with such a specific vision and consistent hit rate, but for my money I Love You, Honeybear is the clearest and most successful summation of the world of Father John Misty, lyrically, musically, and stylistically.
Listen to I Love You, Honeybear on Spotify here.