Father John Misty’s second offering, I Love You Honeybear, sees everyone’s favourite fictional priest tackle falling in love and, given the nature of his misanthropic debut, it was always going to be an interesting ride.
The album kicks into life with title track I Love You Honeybear a brooding, semi-serious ode to his new found love, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the album. It’s a soaring, love-struck anthem written by someone who by their own admission hates soaring, love-struck anthems. Complete with a twinkling piano line and a rising string section, the instrumental is at once beautiful and boring. Were Misty’s accompanying lyrics not dripping in sarcasm it wouldn’t sound out of place at the end of some deathly earnest Hollywood romance, and that’s precisely the point. It’s the lyrics that set him apart from so many of his contemporaries. Only Father John Misty could include the line “You’ve got your father’s skull and a wayward aunt’s schizophrenia” and justifiably call it a love song.
Misty (real name Joshua Tillman) has always been a bitter character, an embrace of Tillman’s natural cynicism and one that spat at sentimentality on his debut. However, between that album and this, Father John Misty has evolved, Father John Misty fell in love. Whilst Fear Fun bore the hallmarks of an artist discovering their ‘real’ voice, with the aid of quite a few mushrooms and other consciousness expanding substances, Honeybear is the sound of a man who’s new found, if jaded, sense of self has been rocked by sentimentality.
Tillman’s frustration with himself and with love manifests itself most clearly on The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment; a folky, velvet underground tinged hate-ballad to a woman he meets at a party who says “like literally, music is the air she breathes” and the seemingly inevitable night they spend together. Whilst the entirety of the song is Tillman insulting said woman, on closer inspection, the third person reference to himself in the title and his compliance in their bathtub rendezvous suggests a wider critique of both himself and a societal obsession with celebrity encounters. Misty’s self-presentation as such a celebrity is also sarcastic, probably. In truth it’s hard to know who he’s attacking as he closes with the lyric “I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on, why don’t you move to the Delta? I obliged later on when you begged me to choke ya”.
Throughout, Misty’s mix of romance and cynicism paints the picture of an artist coming to terms with just how soppy love can make us. Take for example When You’re Smiling Astride Me, the closest thing to a slow-jam on the album. The lyrics are at once gushy and brutally honest, as Tillman croons “I can hardly believe I found you and I’m terrified by that”, you can almost hear his inner monologue retching. Yet this is still a characteristically Father John Misty song and as if seeking to restore the balance the following line is “I’ve got nothing to hide from you, kissing my brother in my dreams”. Misty is undeniably an incredibly talented lyricist, and one that like many of the greats, spares no one, even on an album inspired and shaped by meeting his now wife the photographer, Emma.
The build-up to the album’s release set expectations high and saw Misty pull some typically multi-levelled pranks at popular cultures expense. He debuted lead single Bored in the USA on Letterman with a self-playing piano and 22-piece string section, moping about the stage, his lyrical quips intercut with a laugh track, mocking the show, the audience, himself and everyone but Bruce Springsteen. He also released the album weeks in advance through his parody streaming service SAP, all be it in MIDI form, the atonal, compressed software used to write music sometime in the early 2000s. The very same week he performed Honeybear and Bored in the USA at the headquarters of Spotify, using a karaoke machine as his backing. Father John Misty is kind of an arsehole, but Joshua Tillman is a genius.
Back to the album itself; closing track I Went to the Store One Day draws all the cynicism and sentimentality together in a heart-wrenching tale of how he met Emma. A simple, guitar led track, stripped back with Misty’s vocals taking centre stage and sounding more vulnerable than any track on the album. The song tells of the ‘two misanthropes’ of the opening track reconciling their distaste for romance and deciding to marry, putting an end to their ‘regressive tendencies to scorn.’ Our album’s heroes contemplate moving down south to spend their days with their seven daughters until Misty “saves the big one until the last time [they] make love”. It’s Tillman at his most vulnerable and while he still manages to mock the whole situation it’s incredibly sweet, especially given that the two now have a house together in New Orleans, far away from that store in LA where they first met.
For all his cutting lyrics, ambivalence and misanthropy, there’s no doubt Father John Misty means every word on this album and the beauty of Honeybear comes from that conflict. Provocative and simultaneously strangely familiar, his ability to explore and comment on the complexities of life is unrivalled among current recording artists and while Honeybear may not be the most boundary pushing album of the year sonically, it’s surely one of the best, even if it is only February.