Album Review: Father John Misty – “I Love You, Honeybear”

I Love You Honeybear

Joshua Tillman is a man of many names, characters, and public personas. From his time as the drummer for successful Seattle-based folk group Fleet Foxes, his solo music as J. Tillman, and his most recent, Father John Misty. In fact, not long ago, it was difficult to tell who the real man behind the name Father John Misty truly was.

Never one to shy away from being a wise ass, Tillman, as FJM, was always committed to being an entertainer, whether that meant on stage, in interviews, or in a local lounge performing karaoke on any varietal of hallucinogens. He was the poster boy for not giving a fuck. Or… at least the character of Father John Misty made it seem that way.

In an interview I conducted with a post-punk revival musician that will go unnamed, the topic came up of artists who seemed to stick it to the publicists, label management, and media alike, as this particular artist seemed to thoroughly enjoy doing. I brought up Father John Misty, to which this musician basically said “FUCK THAT GUY,” “IT’S ALL AN ACT,” and “THAT DOUCHEBAG IS A PART OF THE PROBLEM!”

I left that interview questioning my affection for Josh Tillman’s alias’ music and persona: What if it really is all an act – does that diminish the value of his music?

Father John Misty - Lincoln Hall 2012
Photo: Kellen Nordstrom

Father John Misty, the stage name and persona, was born within a story that has become almost infamous: Tillman found himself in Big Sur, half-naked in a tree while tripping on mushrooms. It was in that tree that Tillman realized that he would make music being the “sarcastic, overcompensating asshole” that came so naturally to him. Ever since then, Tillman has been parading around stages near you, hips swaying, microphone twirling, and cynical banter flying out of his mouth like some sort of lounge lizard-turned-dragon.

Father John Misty is the real Josh Tillman, but one born on hallucinogens.

Enter: I Love You, Honeybear, the sophomore album that isn’t technically a sophomore album. Sure, it’s FJM’s second album, the follow-up to 2012’s Fear Fun, but really it’s Josh Tillman’s ninth album as a solo musician.

Since the release of Fear Fun, Tillman met and married a photographer and videographer named Emma (Garr). This normally wouldn’t be hugely noteworthy when an artist releases an album, however Emma is not only the inspiration for Honeybear, she’s a large part of its subject matter.

Josh and Emma Tillman on their wedding day
Josh and Emma Tillman on their wedding day

The two met outside of a convenience store in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, and immediately fell hard for each other, spending nights out in L.A. together, as if they were seventeen years old, parading their love for one another for all to see. Soon tying their love together with their creative outlets, Emma would photograph Josh, and Tillman eventually scored a film that Emma directed, called The History of Caves.

On the surface, I Love You, Honeybear is about a love story… their love story. But what the album really illustrates, is how scared Tillman was to fall in love with anyone but himself.

Tillman admits he’s never used the term “Honeybear” to address anyone, especially not Emma. Rather, it’s more of that FJM wit we’ve gotten used to. Honeybear the album is full of that perspective. It’s an album of folk music, by someone who hates conventional folk music; an album of love songs, by someone who refuses to write conventional love songs.

With every peak of graceful, loving words, comes a brash valley, usually involving world-ending catastrophes, consumerism, or feelings of insufficiency. The titular track on the album features lyrics painting the picture of Tillman and his lover rolling in their sheets, stained with “mascara, blood, ash and cum” while the world falls into apocalyptic pieces around them.

Tillman opens up about the night they first slept together on “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”. He sings: “First time, you let me stay the night despite your own rules / You took off early to go cheat your way through film school / You left a note in your perfect script: ‘Stay as long as you want’ / I haven’t left your bed since”

“True Affection” follows, the most electronically laden track FJM has released, but for good reason. The track’s instrumentation sets a motif for the lyrics, written about his struggle trying to connect with Emma from afar, via e-mail or text or another form of technology.

The track’s first “single,” “Bored in the U.S.A.” was performed months earlier on The Late Show with David Letterman, and it’s as close as FJM comes to his Fear Fun sound. The track almost becomes a weak-point, as it seems out-of-place surrounded by more-bitter-than-sweet love songs. Instead, the track is a gut-punch to the “American Dream,” laced with laugh tracks and troubled lyrics about being disabled by debt, overcome by prescription drugs, and fading beauty. The Letterman performance served as FJM’s announcement of the new album, and the track choice came to the chagrin of his label/artist management. Letterman ate it up, and Father John Misty proved once again that he shouldn’t give a fuck.

Tillman sings again on the state of the world via “Holy Shit”, an anti-love letter to his overbearing religious upbringing, a statement on consumerism, and once again, what this means to his love for another human being. The song ends with a symbolic, crashing crescendo and Tillman singing “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / What I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me”.

It’s this sort of polarity that riddles I Love You, Honeybear. You get a beautiful glimpse into the love that Joshua and Emma share with each other, but in the same moment that you get this glimpse, you also realize that this love is a struggle. It’s these impressions and contradictions that make the album so visceral, and in turn, so brilliant.

Tillman, not Father John Misty, closes the album with a song called “I Went To The Store One Day”…

I’ll give you one guess what and who that song is about.