Following a lengthy stint as a brooding solo singer-songwriter and as the drummer for choral-folk outfit Fleet Foxes, Josh Tillman decided to rebrand himself as Father John Misty. Originating after a mushroom-fueled revelation, the moniker became a full-on persona, a goofy, mystical Lothario who sang about Canadian shamans, talking dogs, the pretensions of writing a novel, and ass-based skin grafts on his promising 2012 debut Fear Fun. Preternaturally self-aware and simultaneously difficult and endearing, like a less divisive Lana Del Rey-type, Tillman’s musical alter-ego found him approaching music from a satirical and almost cartoonish head space. Be it through pretending to strike the chords on a player piano on Letterman or creating an elaborate, tongue-in-cheek streaming service SAP, which “streamed” his sophomore album I Love You, Honeybear via terrible MIDI sounds, Misty works to challenge as much as entertain.
Fortunately, the masterful I Love You, Honeybear proves that Misty the character doesn’t overpower Tillman the musician. Instead, his silly antics and heady existential musings color the entire LP. In many ways, Honeybear is an album full of earnest and bombastic love songs that unrelentingly dive into the gritty details of a relationship’s complexity, based in part on his own recent marriage. The opening title track finds Tillman bluntly warning, “I brought my mother’s depression / You’ve got your father’s scorn and wayward aunt’s schizophrenia” before reaching a conclusion of closer “I Went To The Store One Day” with, “For love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple.”
For the rest of the album, the songs deal with deconstructing romance, from the philosophical reasons against it “Holy Shit” to the acerbic, self-loathing rocker “The Ideal Husband” which reveals, “I’ve said awful things / Such awful things / And now it’s out.” “Bored In The USA” is the only one of the album’s 11 tracks that isn’t a personal meditation on love; rather, it’s a Randy Newman-inspired social commentary complete with ominous canned laughter, an orchestral piano-led composition, and lines as biting as, “Save me President Jesus!” and “They gave me a useless education / And a subprime loan / On a craftsman home.” It’s thematically off from the rest of the LP, but Tillman’s emphatic delivery sells it with the same vigor of the ’70s songwriters he so reveres.
The new album features a reunion with Fear Fun producer Jonathan Wilson, who channels the same expansive, Laurel Canyon-inspired Americana here. But where its predecessor was an array of Neil Young and Harry Nilsson-inspired West Coast pop, Honeybear is much more orchestral and ambitious. From the mariachi horns on album highlight “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” to the electronic blips in “True Affection” to the soul-pop swoon of “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me,” the album is incredibly dynamic and touches on well-worn signifiers of American music traditions. There are slices of country rock, gospel, Laurel Canyon folk, and R&B that gracefully blend together. From the music alone, the album is immaculately rendered.
Apart from the lush compositions and layered autobiographical themes, I Love You, Honeybear also succeeds perhaps most obviously from Tillman’s own incredible voice. With a welcoming tenor and a likeably schmaltzy delivery that finds him displaying loads of range and emotions, he’s able to give his subject matter the unforgiving and ultimately warm treatment it deserves.