Before his departure from the band in 2012, Josh Tillman was perhaps best known for his drumming in Fleet Foxes. In reality, the band was already on the cusp of success by the time he joined in May 2008 and he did not even appear on their debut album. His influence on the band was only really seen on their sprawling second full-length, Helplessness Blues, an album which incorporated more ambitious and experimental song writing. His knack for seeking out a strange take on a well-trodden style of music has continued into his work as Father John Misty.
Although I Love You, Honeybear is technically Tillman’s ninth album as a solo artist, it is only his second as Father John Misty, the moniker he adopted after leaving Fleet Foxes. On Fear Fun (his debut under the name), he abandoned the gentle folk of his earlier releases for something grander and more vivacious. Although the shift from his work as J. Tillman to his work as Father John Misty stands as the most dramatic of his career, the development from Fear Fun to I Love You, Honeybear is undeniably the most extraordinary.
Building on the foundations of 2012’s Fear Fun, Tillman’s new release sees him thrust his unique personality (and his love of psychedelic drugs) into the forefront. The album is characterised by ornate instrumentation and Tillman’s penchant for lyrical tales that elegantly tread a fine line between sublime, ugly, and hilarious. At first glance, the opener is a saccharine and melodramatic affair in the spirit of an old rock-and-roll ballad, with Tillman belting out a declaration of love, coupled with the nauseating pet name he has for his wife. At closer inspection, it is fleshed out with frank and unadulterated descriptions of sex – even against an altar at one point, resulting in the conception of a satanic child.
On the flipside, the album also concerns itself with critiquing American culture. On Bored In The USA, a titular play on the Springsteen classic, he speaks for a generation who have disappointed their parents, incurred heavy debts, and grown apathetic to modern life. It warps into a humourous climax as he riffs on how embedded Christianity is in American culture with the exclamation “Save me President Jesus!”, complete with eerie canned laughter that weirdly suits the moment.
Although most of Father John Misty’s album is intentionally and wholeheartedly beautiful, The Ideal Husband stands out as an entirely different beast. Tillman wails about getting home at 7am and spending all his money on getting drunk and high, asking “Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?” This track is, in many ways, the most salient of the album as it juxtaposes the domestic bliss which he focuses on in other tracks with the very drug habit that imbues the psychedelic-tinged pop aesthetic of the entire LP.
The crisp recording, mixing, and unashamedly gorgeous melodies of the album could easily have been at odds with the warped and twisted lyrical yarns that Tillman threads, but both are so elaborate and lavish that it somehow works to stunning effect. I am hesitant to make such a bold claim so early in the year, but I Love You, Honeybear has all the elements of some of my favourite albums of the past few years such as Jens Lekman’s I Know What Love Isn’t and Destroyer’s Kaputt. Both are by singer-songwriters who, like Tillman, have an inimitable lyrical personality and a penchant for sumptuous instrumentation. Given time, I think Father John Misty’s latest album could join their ranks.