Sub Pop Records, 2014
We probably all have that friend - that friend with a very low tolerance for bullshit, who refuses to play along with other people's false fronts and affect. We laugh uproariously when they're ranting about someone else, but we'd hate for them to turn their acid tongue on us. Josh Tillman, the man who records as Father John Misty, is willing to be that friend to us all. On his new record I Love You, Honeybear, his gaze is even more laser-focused than in the past. On "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt." an otherwise breezy, string-laced acoustic tune, Tillman spits venomously: "She says 'Like, literally, music is in the air she breathes' / And the malaprops make me wanna fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means."
The lyrical focus of this record overcomes the sometimes dated sound that marred the first Father John Misty record, Fear Fun. Tillman still draws inspiration from the gentle country-tinged folk and folk-rock of the early 1970's Laurel Canyon scene, with slide guitars, gently sweeping strings, and heavenly backing harmonies, but he makes it clear that this is an affectionate parody. Tillman sets his sights on falsehoods and emotional and intellectual vacuity, qualities that have typified the aforementioned Laurel Canyon scene, but his concerns are more contemporary. The album's lead single, "Bored in the USA," is not a critique of the USA like its title would suggest (and not a misguided parody of Bruce Springsteen's already ironic "Born in the USA"), but instead, with its almost too ham-fisted monologue, elegant string arrangement and canned laughter, is it a keen-eyed satire of the very trendy cynicism that it emulates.
Of course, it would be alienating if the entirety of I Love You, Honeybear were a fed-up rant. The record is surprisingly open and honest as well. The record's most decidedly naked moment (both literally and figuratively) is "When You're Smiling and Astride Me," a beautifully frank and soulful missive to a lover. The song ends with the couplet "That's how you live free / To truly see and be seen." Therein lies the purpose of this entire record. Tillman gives out tongue-lashings because he loves, because he wants everyone to drop the act and just be fucking real. At points, he even turns his gaze upon himself, berating himself for his moments of weakness and stupidity, making it clear that Father John Misty is not Josh Tillman hiding behind a character.
The record explicitly aims for the personal on its most beautiful moments. The opening title track and the closing track "I Went to the Store One Day," are love songs that are so profoundly infatuated with their subject (Tillman's wife Emma, who is referred to by name on "Chateau Lobby #4 [In C for Two Virgins]") that nothing outside matters - none of the outside bullshit matters when one is so deeply in love with a person they know inside and out. Throughout the record, Tillman's tender, precise tenor is capable of being overwhelmingly passionate, while being endearingly deadpan elsewhere, wrapping around his soft, fluid melodies in an effortless and disarmingly lovely fashion.
The ripeness of feeling contained in Tillman's lyrics is duplicated in the lushness of the music. Each song is assisted by string arrangements by Paul Jacob Cartwright. Other embellishments like the chimes on "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt" and the muted Mariachi horns on "Chateau Lobby #4" add a huge amount of weight to the arrangements, helping to escape the sonic constraints of so much same-sounding singer/songwriter fare. The only experiment that doesn't entirely work on the record is "True Affection" which uses analogue synths and drum machines alongside the usual harmonies and strings. It's not that "True Affection" is a bad song, just that it doesn't quite fit with what surrounds it, and its appearance as only the third track is rather jarring.
Despite that slight misstep, it's remarkable how well Tillman has managed to synthesise so many genres - country, folk, rock, soul, pop, psychedelia - and still maintain focus. The sound is a throwback, but it's hard to accuse Father John Misty of being a throwback project when the results are this startlingly fresh and original. I Love You, Honeybear is a feast for the ears and the mind. It is one of the lushest and best produced rock records in years, and also one of the smartest.