Liberation Through Sentimentality and Naivete

i love you honeybear

Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
Sub Pop, 2015

“Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, then what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

-David Foster Wallace

fatherjohnmisty-2015-05-emmatillman-printJosh Tillman has been a man in recovery: from his repressive Christian upbringing, from his youth as a sad bastard songwriter, from the anonymity within the fame of drumming for Fleet Foxes. Sarcasm, parody, absurdism, and irony are some of the main vehicles he seems to be using to fast-track his personal process of stripping off masks and debunking illusions. His construction of the alter-ego Father John Misty and the release of his 2012 album Fear Fun amounted to an attempt to reject, through snark, just about everything associated with pop culture and rock star fame. In creating it, Tillman ironically embraced the vastness of his own ego, and pop culture and music audiences embraced him in return. The Misty identity seemed too cool for everything, and ultimately, too cool for being too cool for everything. Tillman risked becoming stuck in the endless feedback loop of jaded disinterest Wallace believes society as a whole has fallen victim to. In order to break out of the cage, he chose to do something sentimental and naïve, something so saccharin, so earnest, it left no room for irony:

He fell in fairy tale love with a pretty girl and wrote her a bunch of songs. He put them together with some of his older, more jaded stuff, and called it I Love You, Honeybear.

Tillman is still funny as hell, in the most absurdist, “look at me and how weird I am,” way possible, as this bizarro statement he released to the press along with Honeybear will attest. He’s not a musical genius; his musings are not exactly incisive cultural commentary. He is a self-crafted celebrity whose flavor appeals to those who think we think deep thoughts, who believe we are too smart and cagey to be taken in by cookie cutter pop stars or reality TV. In the end, we like eye candy and reckless self-indulgence just as much as the next consumer. We just want a package on it that respects how truly perceptive and insightful we really are.

By the way, did you know Father John Misty has his own fucking perfume?

Father-John-Misty-3-1024x768All interpretation of the man and his brand aside, I Love You, Honeybear is really growing on me. It is a little tough to swallow at first, as Tillman’s songwriting takes on an open, confessional quality that sacrifices some of the witty verbosity he utilized on Fear Fun in favor of uncensored professions of real emotion, belted out across his vocal range with plenty of blue-eyed soul behind them. What I can respect about it is I think Tillman is a man living a charmed life, and he knows it (and he’s starting to celebrate it). It’s fun to close your eyes and let the music take you away to a place where you are a pseudo-intellectual songwriter spending your days lounging on the Pacific Coast with your soul mate, hanging out at the Henry Miller library, carrying the whole thing off with a goofy grace by not taking yourself too seriously.

The album leads off with its title track, which is heavy on canned backup vocals and soaring strings that would embarrass Harvest-era Neil Young. While he downplays the importance of his years with Fleet Foxes, he has added his former group’s penchant for grand orchestral arrangements built off of booming percussion to the Misty musical arsenal. The kind of love his lyrics describe is part pastoral fantasy, part attributional bias: “Fuck the world/damn straight malaise/it may be just us who feel this way.”

Like Dylan before him, Tillman is a hopeless romantic in a disguise of cynicism, his devotion to his wife and belief in the unique purity of their love in “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” reminds me of Dylan’s Sara Lownds-inspired work:

“Dating for twenty years just feels pretty civilian
I’ve never thought that
Never thought that once in my whole life
You are my first time
People are boring
But you’re something else I can’t explain
Take my last name.”

The idea of two disaffected and oversexed people finding true love with each other for the “first time,” leads to Tillman’s rejection of all his past romantic experiences. Again like Dylan, he is a man who can melt into the throes of passion so completely that he is capable of total idealization of the object of his affections; but who can also mine his hurt and heartbreak once an affair goes wrong for detached expressions of scathing judgment. He excoriates one of his former lovers with cold precision in “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”:

“Of the few main things I hate about her
One’s her petty, vogue ideas
Someone’s been told too many times they’re beyond their years
By every half-wit of distinction she keeps around.
And now every insufferable convo
Features her patiently explaining the cosmos
Of which she is in the middle.”

Pretty ladies, tell me: when a skilled and articulate songwriter falls head over heels in love with you, is there ever a time, during those early days when animated stars and canaries circle your lusty headboards, when you wonder what kind of nasty, sardonic masterpiece he’ll write about you after things turn sour?

Misty’s paeans of love for his wife frame and give shape to the album. He tries his hand at velvety retro-soul with “When Your Smiling and Astride Me,” and gets even more tender with “I Went to the Store One Day,” which describes the scene of meeting his future bride in a parking lot. But he also works in some change-of-pace critiques of modern society as a hollow and alienating experience. “True Affection” laments our over-reliance on technology with an ironically synthesized electronic beat. “Bored in the USA” presents a scaled-up attempt to lampoon consumer culture, and while I respond to some of its sentiments, I can’t shake the feeling that Tillman could’ve done better. We saw over and over on Fear Fun how artfully he can deliver a verbal punch to the gut of America’s collective delusions. “Bored in the USA” just seems a little too straightforward, like he’s hardly trying. It kind of sounds like a song Randy Newman would write if he was in a very literal mood.

In this interview with Spin, Tillman explains that some of the more sordid and angsty songs on the record had been largely written before his marriage. “Strange Encounter,” about a date that went wrong with a girl who “almost died in [his] house,” would seem to be one of those tunes. It leads into “The Ideal Husband,” which describes the kind of marriage proposal I first became familiar with in a scene from Spike Lee’s 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues[1]. An artist drunk on fame falls from grace, experiences revelations of guilt and self-loathing, and seeks out solace in the arms of a woman whose care and compassion he had been previously unable to commit to: “I came by at seven in the morning/I said “Baby, I’m finally succumbing”/Said something dumb like “I’m tired of running”/Let’s put a baby in the oven/Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?” I really like the song’s messy, grinding emotionality. The desperate, howling vocals in the outro remind me of John Lennon going “Cold Turkey.”

“Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” also attempts to lay bare some of the less attractive aspects of the male romantic experience. This Misty is a little drunk, feeling sexually possessive, and getting jealous. He brags about his beloved like a trophy to the other patrons trying to get her attention at the trendy L.A. bar: “It’s hard to believe a good hearted woman/could have a body that’d make your daddy cry”[2] and “She does something way more impressive than the Georgia Crawl/gets down more often than a blow up doll.” The song’s subtle arrangement includes piano, slide guitar, mandolin, and violin in a slow build that allows his backing band a rare featured moment.

father-misty-married-846

If I Love You, Honeybear has a great, signature song, I believe it’s the penultimate “Holy Shit.” Tillman is at the height of his lyrical powers here, turning colorful metered phrases and laying down a catchy hook. He’s given up trying to rationalize the dichotomy of his earnest adoration of his beloved and his scattered rejection of a social environment that has lionized him. With those theatrical strings surging behind him, he embraces a life that just doesn’t make sense:

“Oh and love is just an institution based on human frailty
What’s your paradise got to do with Adam and Eve?
Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
What I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”

Josh Tillman is a married man in love these days. Go ahead and give his record a few spins, let it soak in. I bet you’ll come away believing these two crazy kids just might make it.

And if they don’t? Well, then we’re getting a really spectacular record out of it.

Thanks to Sub Pop’s marketing decision, you can listen to the full album streaming on Youtube.


[1] Go to 1:56:16. The “You want me to beg? I’m begging. Save my life.” scene.

[2] This is what Tillman’s wife looks like naked. Because I knew you were wondering.

4 thoughts on “Liberation Through Sentimentality and Naivete

  1. This is definitely a good review and provides so much meaningful comment, but god, I hate this record. I keep trying to get in to it but the “voice” is so grating. I don’t just mean the singing voice, which I have often found to be beautiful, however I have to say after his crooned insult to a previous lover about being an imitatively soulful white girl who should just “move to the delta,” his own overblown Daryl Hall soulfulness is a little more of an irritant than it might have been. But what I really mean is the pushy parade of pseudo sincerity and selective acts of trench-coat self-exposure masked as somehow significant content. I adore rock narcissism as a rule, but, well… “Father John” kinda just sounds like an insufferable dick on this record. By the time he’s singing “can I get my money back,” that’s exactly what I’m thinking.

    1. I can see a lot of reasons why someone would hate this album. Lyrical hypocrisy and a tendency toward self-pitying egotism among them. Misty is definitely kind of a dick… maybe this kind of thing is a guilty pleasure for me? I have also been known to get sucked into episodes of “Live From Daryl’s House” more often than I’d like to admit.

      Thanks for reading, Emee. Please check back and comment anytime.

      1. Yeah, Emee does make a solid point about Misty calling the kettle black…or white…or whatever. But why that’s OK with me is that I don’t think we’re supposed to take any one of these songs as gospel. The self-righteous dick in that song is no more or less emotionally true-to-life than the bottoming-out guy in “Ideal Husband” or the sappy lover in “Smiling.” They’re all different parts of a personality that is wildly contradictory — who doesn’t have one of those? And they’re all great songs. I couldn’t care less about the “actual” Josh/Father John, but I’m way into this album.

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