What sort of love song can exist in this day and age? In a time when the best ballads tend to be about heartbreak rather than heartache; while words like love and desire have been packaged off and distributed by the likes of One Direction and Bruno Mars. One wonders what memes would have been made of Leonard Cohen if he’d have released I’m Your Man today. And yet here comes Father John Misty; with an album titled I Love You Honeybear, and an album cover like a pop artist’s valentines card. It’s a collection of songs dedicated to his new wife, and not in a Marvin Gaye or Robin Thicke way; he believes he’s found his soulmate. It’s a record made in 2015 by a man shamelessly in love – yet it’s not ‘cringey’ at all.
Josh Tillman is not new to the music scene; in fact under his own name he’s released 6 albums of dark and introspective folk music, and for a time was the drummer for troubled indie-folk gods Fleet Foxes. Then with a loss of musical direction he headed up the sunset strip in a van with a bunch of mushrooms looking for inspiration, and found it in a rebrand; the Father John Misty alias, which strangely yielded humour and his most personal material yet. I Love You Honeybear is his best work, and rightly seems to be shooting him to indie superstardom. Instrumentally the album is packed to the rafters with beautiful arrangements; the sound of 70’s Americana performed in a smoky boudoir, with stomping drums, jazz piano and the odd inspired blast of Spanish horn. The most overtly instrumental display is When You’re Smiling And Astride Me, a luscious piece of Philadelphia soul, with a gospel choir exalting in sultry waves and Tillman taking a back step, crooning immaculately over the crests. Vocally then, Father John Misty confirms what we already knew; he’s fantastic; remarkably dextrous and filled with soul.
‘Ideal Husband’ is the album’s most thrilling cut; Tillman at his most vocally aggressive, spitting diatribe about his own failings and past mistakes
The main takeaway from the LP though is its lyrics; detailing incredible honesty and poetry. Tillman follows in the footsteps of Springsteen and Cohen, and while he’s less evasive than either artist, his every word bristles with an underlying romanticism; which perhaps explains how he can get away with the overtly sappy displays in each of these tracks. The Cohen-referencing ‘Chateau Lobby #4’ is the riskiest on the album as it puts the most out there, but in perfect Springsteen fashion Tillman focusses on small moments to convey a grander romance, crooning ‘you left a note in your perfect script: “stay as long as you want”/and I haven’t left your bed since.’ ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment’ is a self-deferential tale of his own hypocrisy, humorously painting the picture of a tedious hipster who says ‘like literally, music is the air she breathes’ only to later end up in bed together. ‘Ideal Husband’ is the album’s most thrilling cut; Tillman at his most vocally aggressive, spitting diatribe about his own failings and past mistakes. By giving so much air time to the realities of love, which people often bemoan the absence of in sentimental writing, the music’s poetry evokes genuine emotion rather than just eye rolls. When he says ‘I can hardly believe I’ve found you and I’m terrified by that’ you can’t question his sincerity.
the standout failure is ‘True Affection’; a sonic train-wreck with a generic synthpop rhythm and the cheapest sounding drum loops available on DJ-freeware
That’s not to say it’s a flawless work of art from start to finish. The standout failure is ‘True Affection’; a sonic train-wreck with a generic synthpop rhythm and the cheapest sounding drum loops available on DJ-freeware. Tillman wails over a rhythm which seems to have little relation to his singing, amounting quite simply in a tuneless mess, ill-fitting of the tone of every other song. It’s a shame because there’s no room for stumbles on a record with an embarrassment of fantastic tracks. ‘Bored in the U.S.A.’ is one of those, and the only one where romance is set aside and Tillman’s obvious political insight is allowed to run wild. It was his enchanting performance of the song on Letterman in November which led to such anticipation for the album and indeed it was the sort of moment one could see being replayed in history classes of the future: Tillman standing from a piano which is revealed to be playing itself, to a soundtrack of fake studio laughter, wondering ‘is this the part where I get all I ever wanted? Who said that? Can I get my money back?’ just as America itself faces its own international decline. It might not happen, but it was that manner of exquisite opportunism.
an album of what at times comes across as a love letter, and at others pure catharsis
Of equal stature is the intensely smart Holy Shit, a song which pits the previous track’s politics against the rest of the album’s romance and lets the sparks fly. Not only does it feature the very best vocal melodies, but also its best poetry. ‘Maybe love is just an economy based of resource scarcity…’ is the LP’s standout lyric. The song explores the ideas of the individual in a romantic relationship; through Tillman spit-balling an endless spiel of witticisms and interests of the liberal left; with the voice of his lover interjecting, longing to be devoted as much time as these personal passions of his, or, as the song says much better; ‘love is just an institution based on human frailty, but what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.’ It’s through an album of what at times comes across as a love letter, and at others pure catharsis, that Tillman allows himself the grace of the final song; a happy ending of sorts, which starts off as reminiscing the moment he and his wife first met and then jets off into the future, where he leaves a space in the song for memories they’ll look back on that are yet to be made. The final lyric of the album comes from that first moment; “Hey I’ve seen you around, what’s your name?” And so comes to an end the best singer-songwriter album since Benji, and a near-perfect guide on how to wear your heart on your sleeve, with your head held high.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
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