I will freely admit, I’d never listened to Father John Misty, that intriguing creature devised by former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman, before hearing I Love You, Honeybear. Despite the heartfelt recommendations of more than a few close acquaintances, he’d always managed to slip under my radar. His brief tenure with the afore-mentioned folk band passed me by, and 2012’s Fear Fun, at the most passing of glances, stayed with me more for its album artwork than its music. It was while idly surfing YouTube, the demon of impending finals naively banished to the darkest corners of my mind, that I chanced upon his performance of ‘Bored In The USA’ on Letterman. He strode the stage, a lanky, bearded scarecrow, expounding the hollowness of American culture in a striking baritone. All the while, an automated piano tinkled idly away in the background, eventually giving way to the sound of soulless canned laughter. His cries of “Save me, President Jesus!” in the face of relentless mechanical mirth spoke of a dying society in thrall to its empty, rarefied icons (the “Jesus was a white guy!” blatherings of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly came instantly to mind); icons which he then proceeded to tear down in masterful style. In an environment as habitually inoffensive as Letterman’s perfumed realm, this was not only bold, but savagely intelligent, and the relatively muted applause it received was testament to its impact on the all-American audience.
However, the discovery that such a depressing, yet affirmingly iconoclastic number resided in an album called I Love You, Honeybear initially left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Call me cynical, but such light-hearted epithets have always smacked of dehumanisation to me, and serve, ironically enough as an obstacle to true romance. The beloved becomes a trope, a conveniently silent character in the narrator’s schmaltzy love story. Therefore, the discovery that Tillman’s opus was a concept album centred around his relationship with his wife initially made my heart plummet. Would the ennui of ‘Bored In The USA’ be subsumed under a cushy blanket of cookie-cutter ‘romance’?
The answer, thank President Jesus and all his nauseating friends, is no. From the outset, it’s clear that this is an album of contrasts. The images of the album’s opening title track are set against each other masterfully. Tillman’s wistful calling of his ‘Honeybear’ is set over a lyrical picture of post-coital detritus staining a Rorshach-blot bedspread, and the lovers are set in opposition to the world around them: “We’re naked, getting high on the mattress, while the global market crashes”. The storybook romance is shattered by the grimness of its own reality, and the exposing of its more ‘real’ aspects. Of all people, Julian Assange emerges on the ballsy rock stomp ‘An Ideal Husband’ as an avatar of the loss of personal privacy. Here, his prying is used, with self-aware comic effect, to expose and reflect on the misdemeanours of the drunken, drugged-up satyr of ‘Fear Fun’ (i.e the ‘real’ Father John Misty); the wild-man is snarkily found wanting as an ‘ideal’ husband at the song’s close. Clearly, Tillman is not fixated on a rose-tinted view of his wife to the exclusion of fierce introspection. In addition, where the Muse herself temporarily subsides, Tillman’s black sense of humour comes out in spades. In the deceptively sunny ‘The Night John Tillman Came To Out Apartment’, he plays with the idea of his own celebrity, while condemning the vapidity of a former, temporary lover who might use the song’s title as a boast, unaware that she’s the butt of Tillman’s joke.
However, the savage guarding of the very privacy of this romance also abounds. The dancehall blues slow-burner ‘Nothing Ever Good Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow’ is a blistering attack on the attempts of other men to seduce his Muse, while at the same time contemplating the extent to which he himself can ever truly ‘possess’ her. The lovers’ neighbours are shown as suspicious and bitter in the opening track. The album’s closer, ‘I Went To The Store One Day’, a genuinely touching celebration of old love and a tongue-in-cheek idealisation of the future, ‘insert re: our golden years’, pictures a marital home shut off from civilisation by vegetation, before finishing beautifully with the moment of their very meeting.
The cynic in me will confess, there’s something deliciously ironic about such a private romance, never to be shouted from the rooftops, instead being put into an album for public circulation, and I did find myself questioning whether he meant any of it, or if this was a giant ‘in-joke’ between Mr. and Mrs. Tillman. However, perhaps this is the kind of picture we all need in our lives, particularly in the context of rampant Valentine’s day commercialism. If we look at the lyrics of ‘Holy Shit’, a song written on Tillman’s wedding day, the genuine heart of the album is revealed, ‘maybe love is an economy based on resource scarcity – what I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me’. The sentiment of the album’s title, therefore, is validated in its simplicity rather than obscured by cynicism or saturated with saccharine, and this, ultimately, is one of the most candidly, authentically romantic albums I’ve ever heard. Father John Misty is not seeking to cure your romantic delusions, if indeed he has you in mind at all. And why would he, when he’s got everything he needs?
PHOTO/ Ralph Arvesen