Read Kelsey’s dedication to Father John Misty here.
Father John Misty is not a real person. Let’s clear that up at the outset.
Rather, he is a persona invented by songwriter Josh Tillman, who writes and performs as Father John, but and this is important, is not Father John. To hear Tillman tell it, after years of trying and failing to fit himself into the usual acoustic singer/songwriter box, he came up with Father John as a way to change his sound and be more honest. Instead of tip-toeing around secondhand emotions via the same tired material you’ll hear in coffeeshops from Bangor to Modesto, Tillman embraced his inner demon.
On the albums, Father John is the kind of friend who’ll tear your house to pieces at a party, but only after you specifically ask him to do so. He is a super-cool, great-looking id for the 21st century indie rock set, the Only Son of the Ladies Man, and the persona allows Tillman the freedom to explore the depths of hipster ennui from a safe remove. For 2012’s Fear Fun, the emptiness Tillman found at the heart of his Young American experience led to folky, countrified songs about wild parties, strange encounters, experimentation on a grand scale, and being okay with being kind of a dick. On his new release, I Love You, Honeybear, he dispenses with the country and folk for a much more soulful sound in telling tales of love and hate, darkness and light, and being ready to move on into a new emotional space. He still turns clever phrases and traffics in observational humor, but he is also angry and confused, mostly at being so desperately in love.
The anger comes through early, with the opening title track’s second line pivoting on “Fuck the world, damn straight.” The second song, “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins),” is a hopeful ode to a new relationship, but the confusion he keeps returning to stands out in ways anyone in the surge of infatuation can understand immediately. The fourth song, “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment,” is a testament to the daily aggravations of being Father John Misty:
Oh I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man
I mean like a god damn marching band
She says like literally music is the air she breathes
And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream
He goes on throughout the track about how he can’t stand this woman, painting the picture of a spoiled, loudmouthed groupie who think she’s the center of the universe. By song’s end, though, he gives her exactly what she wants, which, this being Father John, is rough sex. Throughout I Love You, Honeybear, Misty is fed up with most things and not shy about saying so, but at the same time he has appetites, and won’t pass on an easy target.
Even so, a key component in any good story is change in the hero, and by album’s end Father John comes around. After eight songs detailing Father John’s ups and downs coming to grips with love, the narrative through-line comes to a head over the album’s final three tracks. Starting with the spare “Bored in the USA”, which unfolds as the most hopeless, cracked-out Neil Young piano ballad left off After the Gold Rush, Father John goes over a litany of reasons to be sad and depressed by American life. He even goes so far as to cue up a laugh track to punctuate the details and make the larger point, as though it’s a hilarious notion for an American to want to do something other than the same shit as everybody else.
On the next track, “Holy Shit,” an almost optimistic acoustic strum sets the scene for another laundry list of laments before Father John sings, “And nobody ever knows the real you/and life is bleak/so I’ve heard/but what’s that got to do with this black hole in me?” These aren’t the words of a man who wants to give up or stay put, but rather someone focused on figuring out just what the hell is going on, and what that means to him. He later sings, strings swelling in the background, “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity/but I fail to see what that’s got to do with you and me.”
The final song, “I Went to the Store One Day,” opens soft and sweet and rarely rises above a whisper as Father John admits to being a wreck over a girl: “If this isn’t true love, someone ought to put me in a home…say, do you want to get married?” All the crazy shit he’s felt and sung about over the course of I Love You, Honeybear boils down to meeting someone on the eponymous trip to buy cigarettes and coffee, another random happenstance in an entropic universe he celebrates, but one that at the same time changed him in ways he’s finally ready to accept. For all the album’s anger and insanity, this soft and sweet ending song (one that Tillman has said in interviews is virtually 100% true to his life) augurs a bright future for Father John somewhat inconceivable earlier in the album.
On I Love You, Honeybear, Father John Misty stands in for an entire generation of confused no-longer-young adults crossing a threshold they do not understand and for which they are not prepared. He is a party boy trying to make good but not knowing how to do so. As it happens with pretty much everyone in a similar position, the character falls back on what he understands, and the powerful way he feels, to guide him forward into a new reality he’s pretty sure what he wants, but who knows, really?
Better still, as any good storyteller should, Josh Tillman gets out of the way and lets Father John Misty do what he’s got to do, as he’s got to do it. What results is a wonderful story about living in a time and place and figuring out if an accepted way of doing business may have run its course. It’s not just the story, either: there are some seriously great songs on this album. You don’t necessarily want to run it front-to-back at a party, but if you’re feeling low to baseline and have 46 minutes to spare, I Love You, Honeybear is the fucking jam.