Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear

by Hayden Harman Rating:10 Release Date:2015-02-09

David Letterman has hosted many memorable musical performances over his 30-plus-year career, but 2014 was probably the highlight of recent years. Audiences will always fondly recall the strange and emotive 'Seasons (Waiting on You)' by Future Islands, featuring frontman Samuel T Herring slithering around and pounding his chest like it was nobody’s business.

It certainly was last year's most viral Late Show performance, but there was another musical guest - a slender, bearded, singer-songwriter type - named Father John Misty who gave an equally great yet totally opposite performance. It was in stark contrast to Future Island’s performance, which Letterman and the audience clearly 'got'. Instead of receiving gushing praise, Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman) was left awkwardly standing on stage after his song’s conclusion. Letterman, much less the audience, knew how to react, not because Tillman gave a bad performance, but because the song, 'Bored in the USA', was so critical it stung and so direct it left listeners conflicted, if not outright confused.

Josh Tillman’s moniker as Father John Misty began three years ago when he released Fear Fun, to critical (if slightly restrained) acclaim. Since then, he has developed a cult following thanks to his reputation for energetic live shows and his sexy, Jim Morrison-esque looks.

Tillman has said his second LP, I Love You, Honeybear, is concept album devoted in large part to his relationship with his wife, Emma, whom he married in 2013. But a peaceful love affair this is not, as the album has its share of “sex, violence, profanity and excavations of the male psyche.” This debauchery, mixed with love-song sincerity, leaves one asking, is he being ironic for irony’s sake, or is he actually serious? The truth is, after multiple listens, I’m still not sure, but that’s part of the great appeal of this record.

The album starts off where many stories end: the apocalypse. The title track 'I Love You, Honeybear' isn’t the only 21st century love song with the backdrop of a dying world, but it stands out as being one of the most brutal, humorous and ultimately tender love songs in the mini-genre.

Tillman describes a future where the “global market crashes” and “death fills the streets,” and adds a touch of his old-fashioned nihilism (“Everything is doomed and nothing will be spared”) to the gloom scene. But amid the doom he’s sharing intimate moments with his wife. The two are “getting high on the mattress” as the the world’s going to hell. At the end, Tillman sings “everything is fine/ don’t give into despair/ ‘cause I love you, honeybear,” sketching out the overarching question he grapples with on the rest of the album: is love capable of saving you from nothingness?

Suddenly, the perspective shifts from the present to the past in 'Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)'. It’s his wedding day, complete with a full string-section and mariachi horn-section to heighten the drama, and he and his wife are no longer virgins to the concept of real love, much to the chagrin of their neighbors. Tillman’s in love and wants the whole world to know.

Then, in true provocateur fashion, he follows up that love song with the electro-pop of 'True Affection', on which his multi-tracked voice imitates Active Child’s choirboy harmonies as he laments the distance interfering devices cause in relationships. This unexpected musical shift reminded me of something Jens Lekman, a fellow troubadour equally dedicated to personal narrative and romance, would’ve (

) made. But whereas Lekman is endearingly quirky and self-deprecating, Father John Misty is the wordy alpha-male doing the put-downs and reminiscing about his colorful romantic exploits.

Which brings me to the middle of the album. This is where Tillman gets a little lost in his own personal history. While some songwriters thrive on explicit personal narrative, Tillman slightly alienates himself from his audience with too many overly-specific details. However, this section reveals much about his complex psyche. When he’s not dissing the “soulful affectation white girls put on,” he’s confessing “I can hardly believe I found you, and I’m terrified by that.”

This middle section has a mellow, country-soul vibe that allows Tillman to let off a little steam before the big finale. He starts his grand conclusion by cranking up the rock level to 11 on 'The Ideal Husband', where he discloses all of his sins and weaknesses to the audience, and more importantly, to Emma.

Tillman’s songwriting reaches its peak when he’s at his most universal. On 'Bored in the USA' and the penultimate track, 'Holy Shit', he pulls himself out of his dreamy past and locates himself in the inescapable now, bridging the gap between performer and listener as good as anyone’s done.

Those two songs should be minor anthems for Gen Y. He’s an expert at taking the abstract signs o' the times that unite our generation and then contrasting them with deeply personal matters of the heart. And that's right where Tillman hits you at the end of 'Holy Shit' - after he exhausts topics like original sin, genetic fate, black holes and atom bombs - when he sings “But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”

After two masterful songs, Tillman ends with a subdued acoustic number about how he met Emma in a store parking lot. It’s the closest thing we get to an honest answer to the question, is love the answer to nothingness? For a brief moment, Tillman - and by extension, the audience - believes it is. That’s the moment when his personal life-story truly becomes a universal metaphor for hope and love.

Alas, if only it were that simple. The third time I listened to the album, I had it on repeat. Right after the closing track ushered a new beginning, I was thrust right back to the apocalypse that began the album.

Hearing the album that way made me realize it’s a cyclical experience: no one ever knows for certain if love is the answer, but life is full of moments where it sure feels it could be true. And at least people like Father John Misty have the heart to try to find the answer.

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