A big word to start a review, but it’s the word that dominates I Love You, Honeybear, the second album from Father John Misty. This is not, however, a love that comes adorned in flowers and dripping in greeting card sentiments, not the love that’s dominated pop songs for sixty years.
I Love You, Honeybear is love not as a transformative experience or something that enables the person or persons in love to undergo a metamorphosis; it’s warts-and-all love, an admission that being in love might make you happier that you’re with someone who loves you back (and, importantly, understands and accepts your flaws) but it doesn’t change your worldview, your pessimistic nature, your self-destructive traits – just as you are unable to change your partner’s particular characteristics by falling in love.
What has transformed, of course, is the course of Josh Tillman’s music career. From the drummer in Fleet Foxes, through stark folk music as J. Tillman to the hard-drinking, destructive, fact or fiction line-blurring sexpot we found on Fear Fun as Father John Misty, Tillman has taken about ten years to get to the point where he is able to reveal as much of his true self as he is comfortable: “I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of being J” is the line from “Everyman Needs A Companion”, the last song on Fear Fun and the song that informs or begins much of the “love story” we find on I Love You, Honeybear a somewhat chronological story of how Tillman met and came to marry his wife Emma.
Musically, it’s exactly how Tillman has described it in his extravagant press release: lushly orchestrated and produced with help from Jonathan Wilson, it’s the sound of solo-period John Lennon, Harry Nilsson and Dory Previn and expands on the Laurel Canyon vibes of Fear Fun by adding mariachi bands, ragtime jazz, plenty of strings and even an (perhaps slightly misjudged) appearance from a drum machine. It also finds FJM in full-on crooner mode; always a good singer, this record exposes Tillman as a great singer. Lyrically, of course, it’s stunning and benefits from Tillman dropping the mythologies and bearing his soul that little bit more.
As opener “I Love You, Honeybear” drunkenly stumbles and swoons into view on grand piano notes and swooping strings, Tillman sings of being in love but only in the starkest of terms: “You fuck the world / damn straight malaise / it may be just us who feel this way / Don’t ever doubt this, my steadfast conviction / My love, you’re the one I want to watch this ship go down with”. He's found a kindred spirit in Emma, someone who might just be as damaged and fucked-up as himself, and the feeling appears again on the glorious trumpet-adorned foxtrot of “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” (a nod to Lennon and for two people in love for the first time) when he sings “I haven’t hated the same things / as somebody else / since I remember / what’s going for? / what are you doing your whole life? / how about forever?” We’ll come to some of those shared hated things shortly, but “Chateau Lobby” finds Tillman committing completely and without any caveats, saying “dating for twenty years seems pretty civilian” and asking Emma to take his last name. It’s also interesting to know that amid all the Young Neils, Joseph Campbells and Rolling Stones on Fear Fun, Father John Misty isn’t afraid to address someone as real and human as Emma by name immediately and forthrightly.
It’s never going to be plain sailing for such a flawed “character” as Father John Misty, though. On the chiming Velvet Underground-stylings of “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.” He rages against someone who misappropriates the English language detailing that “she says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / and the malaprops make me wanna fucking scream” and that they are “petty, insufferable” and prone to excess. As Tillman says I Love You, Honeybear is mostly chronological we’ll have to assume this incident is pre-Emma and the sort of stuff he’s looking to escape by making her his wife (which of course he did). There’s more bad behaviour on the glammy stomp of “The Ideal Husband” where FJM is the jerk banging at your door at an ungodly hours, telling you that they’ve said “such awful things, such awful things” and making grand, comedown promises that are likely to remain unfulfilled, while the shared hated things make an appearance on “Bored In the USA”, a wry take on the State of the Union address where over gentle strings and piano Tillman unleashes his best vocal performance to date, singing “oh they gave me a useless education / and a subprime loan / on a craftsman’s home / keep my prescriptions filled / and now I can’t get off / but I can kind of deal”. Humorous, yes, but there’s a real anger lurking in the background that spills into “Holy Shit” where he rails against “coliseum families / the golden era of TV / eunuch sluts / TV slaves” and other things that we’re told we need to love and be loved. This isn’t the love Father John Misty knows or recognises and his frustration is boiling over.
It’s lucky, then, that I Love You, Honeybear ends by detailing the moment that Tillman met his wife-to-be. The lush instrumentation is mostly dropped for acoustic guitar and a few violins on “I Went To The Store One Day”. We get a naked admission of love, and that’s the love we’re all personally familiar with – not the storybook nonsense: “Say, do you wanna get married / and put an end to our endless regressive tendency to scorn….for love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple”. And so as the record ends, I find myself returning to the lyrics on the gorgeous album high-point of “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” and how they appear to be the most honest take on love I may have ever heard: “Darling, I love you as you are when you're alone / I'll never try to change you / As if I could, and if I were to, what's the part that I'd miss most? / When you're smiling and astride me / I can hardly believe I've found you and I'm terrified by that.” A messy, extravagant, astonishing, beguiling and honest experience: that’s love, and that’s also what I Love You, Honeybear is. Just magnificent.