Indie sex god, Laurel Canyon mystic, hipster charlatan, Randy Newman-on-ayahuasca — all are fitting descriptors for the artist known as Father John Misty. This was not always the case, however, for the former Fleet Foxes drummer and once sad sack singer-songwriter J. Tillman. Tillman began his career in Seattle as a struggling folk singer à la Elliot Smith before joining the Fleet Foxes in 2008. After a few years touring extensively with the group, he ditched the Foxes and moved to LA’s fabled Laurel Canyon community where he donned the moniker Father John Misty, releasing his debut Fear Fun in 2012.
It would be remiss to describe Tillman without mentioning his fungal-induced epiphany on the cliffs of Big Sur. He has described the soul-searching experience saying, “I was kind of laughing at myself, this albino ape sitting in this tree trying to have heavy thoughts, and I realized there’s this thing I can do, and that I should just do it.” And thus, Father John Misty was born: a caricatured rock and roll shaman with a biting wit and a sardonic eye for turning songwriting idioms on their head. This persona has since taken on a life of its own, as Father John Misty has become known as much for his semi-ironic onstage dancing and shirtless Instagram pics as his freaky Americana folk-rock.
I Love You, Honeybear is as its title suggests, a skeptical, self-mocking take on a love album. Tillman is a hyper-literate songwriter, owing as much to novelists like Philip Roth as he does Leonard Cohen, a fact that is more than apparent on the opening eponymous track with lines like, “You’re bent over the altar / And the neighbors are complaining / That the misanthropes next door / Are conceiving a Damien” and “Mascara, blood, ash and cum / On the Rorschach sheets where we make love” — talk about a human stain. “The Night John Misty Came to Our Apt”, a 70’s era country ballad, cuts down a one night lover with the lines “She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what the word means / Well, it’s literally not that”.
With an album chock-full of endlessly quotable lines, it is easy to overlook just how gorgeous the songs are. “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”, for example, is a perfectly crafted kaleidoscope folk-rock track with a soaring melody and an elegant production of chamber-pops strings, lush vocal harmonies, psychedelic percussion and even mariachi horns. It’s also one of the album’s most earnest songs, dedicated to his (presumably gorgeous) fiancé Emma, a plea for tenderness while falling in love for the first time.
“Bored in the USA” and “Holy Shit” are two devastating take downs of the utter vacuity of American consumerism/culture. Each are plaintive piano-driven songs that question the very nature of modern intimacy, asking in “Holy Shit”, “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity?” The album’s final track, “I Went to the Store One Day”, a finger picked acoustic guitar ballad buttressed by mandolins and strings, finds Tillman coming to terms with the intimacy he is so wary of. The song recounts his first chance encounter with Emma before envisioning the rest of their life together, singing wryly, “Don’t let me die in a hospital, I’ll save the big one for the last time we make love / Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years”. The very last line of the song, however, cuts through all the irony as he asks his future wife for the first time, in hopeful sincerity, “I’ve seen you around what’s your name?”
Written by Ethan Varian
OurVinyl | Contributor