Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty describes his new album, I Love You, Honeybear, as “a concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman” and his relationship with his wife. Being the kind of writer he is, he refuses to stoop to sentimental cliché; instead, he engages in mean-spirited honesty and sarcastic self-loathing. To call Father John Misty “sardonic” at this point is itself a cliché.
And yet this is an album of love songs.
“She and I have created a circumstance in which it’s safe to discuss everything, all this intense, deep-down shit,” Tillman told Pitchfork. “But there’s an anxiety because I don’t know if I trust the world with my intimacies. These songs were written about our experience, now it’s time to universalize them.”
This anxiety is not unjustified. At times I Love You, Honeybear veers close to the oversharing territory mined by Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch as Roger and Virginia Clarvin. “At this point during the soak, my lover and I usually crave spiced meats.”
One’s bourgeoisie sense of propriety might be offended to hear about the “mascara, blood, ash and cum on the Rorschach sheets where we make love.” Then again, the reference to Rorschach tests is telling, since Tillman is clearly proud enough of this line to print it on tote bags. What do you see in that line? If you’re skeeved out by it, well maybe these aren’t the love songs for you. If you appreciate the image, there’s plenty like it to follow.
These twisted tales are set against instrumentation far more lush than what we heard on Fear Fun. Almost every song features strings. Whereas a lot of Fear Fun sounded like the White Album, Honeybear sounds more like Mind Games or Walls and Bridges. The heavy-handed arrangements work great on intense songs like “An Ideal Husband” where everything sounds overwhelming and evil. But “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” sounds too much like terrible mid-70s puss-pop/soft rock; the slide guitar tone, the soul sister background vocals, the cloying strings, it’s just too much schmaltz.
“True Affection,” on the other hand, uses synth bloops and programmed beats and sounds out of place. Tillman wrote that song “on tour while trying to woo someone with text message and email and trying to make a connection that way and the frustration of that,” he told Grantland. “So that song had to be synthetic and inorganic.” Interesting concept, sure, but a little too clever for the song’s own good.
But these quibbles don’t diminish the impact of the album as a whole. High points such as “Chateau Lobby #4,” “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment,” and “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” more than make up for the occasional misstep. Producer Jonathan Wilson knows how to get a good performance down on tape, and as Tillman says, he is “truly singing [his] ass off all over this motherfucker.” His voice is incredible throughout.
I like Father John Misty. I feel like I get Tillman’s sense of humor, and I appreciate the high bar he set for himself on this album. “My ambition, aside from making an indulgent, soulful, and epic sound worthy of the subject matter, was to address the sensuality of fear, the terrifying force of love, the unutterable pleasures of true intimacy, and the destruction of emotional and intellectual prisons in my own voice.” Honesty and earnestness obviously do not come easy for him, but he’s trying…in his own Misty way. He’s still a smartass, for sure, but isn’t that the best kind of person to spend your life with?