By Dan Manning
At its core, Father John Misty’s I love You Honeybear is an album composed of mostly love songs (as its title implies). It tells the story of how Misty, or Josh Tillman, came to meet, fall in love with, and subsequently marry his current wife Emma Tillman. The songs are passionate and sweet in sentiment, yet comically cynical and bitter. Tillman writes about hating the world in the same way as someone else, about constantly searching for someone and feeling dissatisfied with everything and everyone you find. The songs tell stories, all separate but very clearly connected to one another. There are drunken escapades at a bar when some drunk “jerk-off” tries to hit on Tillman’s wife, or drug overdoses at first encounters during which Tillman begs this beautiful girl to wake up so that he can fall in love with her. The chronology is skewed all over the album, but with a little investigation and close listening one can discern the proper order of events.
On an instrumental level, the songs are filled with incredibly lush string and piano arrangements. Songs like “Chateau Lobby” and “The Ideal Husband” move along at a speedy, almost danceable pace. Meanwhile, there are stripped down piano and acoustic guitar ballads, the focus of which is Tillman’s beautifully cynical lyrics full of existential dread, and his soft, honest crooning. This is the story for one of the album’s best tracks “Bored in the USA”. “Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted?” Tillman asks before launching into a beautiful, echoing falsetto over the soft chime of minor piano chords. The song is comical yet depressing, an effect that is only heightened by the canned laughter and applause that interjects itself after Tillman complains about being given a “useless education”. This sense of existential bitterness is carried over into the next track “Holy Shit” in which Tillman deconstructs every sort of social institution that someone might find comfort in, stating quite bluntly “no one really knows you and life is brief” or “love is just an institution based on human frailty”. It seems as though Tillman is just fed up with all of it, perhaps a reaction to being overwhelmed by the true nature of it all. He examines and deconstructs, and becomes angry when he realizes the reality of what he finds.
Honeybear is an album full of contradictions; it makes you want to laugh at the ridiculous nature of humanity and love, yet at the same time makes you want to cry at the desperate hopelessness of life. Tillman is able to be as open and honest as he is on this album by assuming the moniker of Father John Misty, a persona that he created after a hallucinogen-fueled trip down the West Coast. Leading up to the album’s release, Misty performed on Letterman with a player piano and full orchestra. He also performed a few tracks from the album at the Spotify offices, accompanied by a karaoke machine playing flat, MIDI versions of the songs as well as a full smoke and lights display. The listener gets the sense that this is a character singing these songs but that behind the curtain of comical allusions and silly antics, there is a man who is bearing it all. Father John Misty as a persona attempts to separate Josh Tillman from the words he is singing, yet the songs are so deeply honest and personal that one cannot help but link the two together.
Dan Manning co-hosts Nightmare On Coulter Street, which can be heard Tuesdays (Monday nights) from 12-1 am on whus.org or 91.7 FM.