The word love isn’t the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the name Father John Misty. The moniker of Josh Tillman is far better known as the sarcastic avatar of hedonism, cynicism, and self-loathing narcissism. So how is it that this unlikely character could fall in love, get married, and make an album about it? This is the query I Love You, Honeybear explores. While the tension between persona and reality has always been part of Father John Misty, this sophomore release is markedly autobiographical—the listener experiences far more of Josh Tillman and his struggles than the intoxicated nomad of Fear Fun.
I Love You, Honeybear represents an evolution not only in Tillman’s subject, but also his style. The album retains the acoustic guitar and tender vocals of his roots in folk, but it’s also elaborately produced—featuring wonderful string compositions from Paul Jacob Cartwright and Gabriel Noel throughout. The production is strikingly more conceptual as well; Tillman often attempts to pair the genre of the track to theme of the song.
The connection to Tillman’s previous work, however, is evident in his mastery of songwriting. Honeybear delivers its subjects with intense images, distinctive voices, and compelling narratives. The sprinkled references to Oscar Wilde, Julian Assange, Bruce Springsteen, and the Chateau Marmont add additional layers of meaning to Tillman’s anecdotes. The whole album, of course, is topped with a sugary coating of Father John Misty’s sardonic humor.
In the inaugural song, Tillman lays out his approach. The first lines of “I Love You Honeybear” are a sort of thesis: “Oh Honeybear, Honeybear, Honeybear / Mascara, blood, ash and cum / On the Rorschach sheets where we make love.” From the very beginning Tillman juxtaposes the extremes of exaggerated sentimentality with explicit and dark imagery. What could be more dissonant than a silly pet name and a sexual encounter so graphic that it evokes psychiatric evaluation? Yet throughout the album, Tillman uses this discord (as well as the discord between his sweet voice and his strong words) as a method for processing his experiences in an original way.
Another tactic for avoiding clichés is apparent in the opening song; he casts the couple as antagonists. These two lovers aren’t the heroes of a fairy tale; the neighbors view their love as a hellish product of The Omen, complaining “That the misanthropes next door are probably conceiving a Damien.” But the lovers even see themselves this way. Facing their malaise and the end of the world, they cleave to each other. Tillman expresses romantic sentiment with lines like, “My love, you’re the one I wanna watch the ship go down with.” They are united, but it’s a unity against society, optimism, and all things proper.
Many of the songs on Honeybear are devoted to exploring specific facets of relationships, and it’s in these where Tillman’s fusion of genre and theme is most evident. “True Affection” is a reflection on the hollowness and artificiality of communicating with “strange devices” instead of “with a face.” It’s as if he used these same strange devices to produce the synthetic, electronic track; it bears little resemblance not only to the rest of the album, but to Tillman’s entire oeuvre. Some listeners may find that the sonic dissonance, while no doubt deliberate, isn’t worth disrupting the rhythm of the album as a whole. Tillman’s shift to blues (“Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow”) is more effective; the whining lap steel guitar slides perfectly compliment Tillman’s honest examination of his feelings of suspicious jealousy and male possessiveness. Both the melody and the lyrics feel like the backdrop for a machismo bar fight: “You may think like an animal, but if you try that cat-and-mouse shit you’ll get bitten / Keep moving.”
“Bored in the USA” could be interpreted as an examination of love in American society, but the song appears to be principally a critique. It’s an expression of disillusionment with the vapid materialism, broken institutions, and hollow relationships of middle class America—and it expresses this well. Lines like “When I was young I dreamt of a passionate obligation to a roommate” and “Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted?” echo the disappointment of reality chipping away at the idealistic and youthful dreams. The song crescendos with a bitterly ironic laugh track behind the bridge, “They gave me a useless education / And a sub-prime loan on a Craftsman home,” closing with a retreat into apathy and tedium. “Bored in the USA” feels much more like the old Father John Misty, but, while the song is excellent in its own right, it doesn’t seem to fit well with the rest of Honeybear.
As could be expected from a philanderer’s album about discovering true love, much of Honeybear follows Tillman as he struggles to understand and resolve his past. “Strange Encounter” relates the story of a near-fatal tryst, presumably after some sort of overdose. The experience overcomes Tillman with the desire to change, and he strains to reconcile his actions with his self-perception of being “a decent person / just a little aimless.” He realizes that giving away precious physical and emotional intimacy has disastrous consequences.
“The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” recounts another one-night stand between Tillman and a woman he disdains. After wittily detailing “the few main things [he] hate[s] about her” Tillman apposes his thoughts to his subsequent actions, “I feel so unconvincin’ / When I fumble with your buttons.” He’s caught between contempt and attraction, loathing and lust. This dissonance is distilled in the final line “I obliged later on when you begged me to choke ya,” where the image of erotic asphyxiation embodies Tillman’s twisted contradictions. The song begs the question—how can a man with such warped experiences ever find meaningful intimacy?
The internal battle reaches a fever pitch in “The Ideal Husband,” a laundry list of Tillman’s transgressions: “I’ve done things unprotected / And proceeded to drive home wasted / Bought things to win over siblings / I’ve said awful things / Such awful things.” He confesses to obsessing over himself, neglecting friendships, resenting loved ones. In desperation, under the weight of remorse, he truly exposes himself. Tillman’s self-indictment is a pre-requisite for allowing himself to be loved. The song reaches a manic climax, shouting:
I came by at seven in the morning
Said, “Baby, I’m finally succumbing!”
Said something dumb like,
“I’m tired of running
Tired of running
Tired of running!”
Let’s put a baby in the oven!
Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?
Tillman is even critical of his own words, and he highlights the absurdity of the situation. “Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?” may be Father John Misty’s most bitterly ironic line yet.
Yet if love dismantles, it also rebuilds. I Love You, Honeybear also has plenty of ballads, and, when taken in the context of his descent, they transcend the pitfalls of sentimentality. Energized by a mariachi band in “Chateau Lobby #4,” he celebrates not only his first night with this unique woman, but also discovering a level of affection he’s never experienced before: “You are my first time / People are boring / But you’re something else completely.” Tillman still tempers the sentiment by framing them as antagonists with lines like “We’ll have Satanic Christmas Eve” and “I haven’t hated / All the same things as somebody else / Since I remember,” but they’re as charming as a cynic can muster.
“When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” is undoubtedly the most intimate song on I Love You, Honeybear. Supported by soulful background vocals, Tillman is alternately crooning and exultant in experiencing real physical and emotional intimacy. He declares, “I’ve got nothing to hide from you…You see me as I am, it’s true / The aimless, fake drifter and the horny, man-child, Mamma’s boy to boot.” But if the confessions in “The Ideal Husband” are prompted by guilt, those in “When You’re Smiling” are motivated by a desire for total vulnerability and proximity—to love fully, to omit nothing, “To truly see and be seen.”
Whereas “The Ideal Husband” is Tillman’s emotional apex, “Holy Shit” is his intellectual apex (albeit with a mocking title). After a charming list of oxymora there’s a moment of clarity:
Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty
But what’s your paradise got to do with Adam and Eve?
Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do
With you and me
Tillman’s realization: cynicism, irony, and pessimism fizzle in the face of authentic love. He can try as hard as he wants to defend himself with rationalization and intellectualization, but in the end he’s confronted by a reality that forces him to be sincere—this is the essential transformation of Father John Misty.
The album comes to a gentle close with “I Went to the Store One Day,” in which Tillman permits himself to reminisce a bit. He looks back on their meeting, as well as his inward evolution. Who could have envisioned Father John Misty singing fondly of a constructive ritual, “Say, do you want to get married? / And put an end to our endless, progressive tendency to scorn / Provincial concepts.” It all ends with their beginning: “I’ve seen you around / What’s your name?”
I Love You, Honeybear achieves a skillful balance between pushing the scope of Father John Misty and staying true to his fundamental voice and perspective. Tillman still has his sharp wit and sarcastic viewpoint, using them this time not as a veil, but as a foil for a newly discovered self. The album is an honest look at intimacy; the listener feels as if Tillman holds nothing back. It’s because of the ugly journey, because of the unexpected protagonist, that I Love You, Honeybear achieves a moving and refreshing take on love.