“…the entire album is basically about him meeting his wife,” my buddy says about I Love You, Honeybear, the new album by Father John Misty.
I think back to April 2013, when I spoke with Josh Tillman, Misty himself, at Coachella. He was doing a record signing, greeting sun-baked fans, posing for photos, and being a smart ass. His shirt was open, his pants white. His ladyfriend Emma Garr was with him, and she nursed a beer, occasionally wincing at Tillman’s jokes, while he attended to his fans. I asked him how the follow-up to his debut album as Father John Misty was coming along. “I’ve pretty much got it written,” he said, glancing at Garr. The vibe between them was palpable.
I dunno, I say to my buddy, I could see a good songwriter writing an album about that.
Tillman’s 2012 album Fear Fun, which was our favorite album of that year, introduced this Father John Misty character, a strange composite of Harry Nilsson, Waylon Jennings, Richard Brautigan and maybe Tim and Eric — a weird druggy stranger Tillman created to shed his folk singer past, his time as the drummer in Fleet Foxes, and his Christian upbringing. All of it kinda faded as Tillman became this new dude, his hips decidedly looser. “I want to do what a stripper does, and in another way do what a carnival barker does, or a shaman, some kind of Pentecostal preacher,” he told me when I spoke with him about the album.
I Love You Honeybear spends some time continuing the adventures of that Misty, chiefly on the Randy Newman-evoking “Bored in the USA,” and some time dismantling the character— but mostly the album is indeed devoted to Tillman’s interactions with Garr, whom he married in September 2013, at a private ceremony in Big Sur. But in true Misty fashion — or is it Tillman? — it’s not exactly Nashville Skyline. Father John Misty love songs are sharp, hilarious, kinky, and vulgar, but beneath the lines about getting down “more than a blow up doll,” “fake drifters,” and mama’s boys, there’s real tenderness. “I can hardly believe I’ve found you and I’m terrified by that,” he sings on the beautiful “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” and when Tillman lashes out at a set of characters foolish enough to try and interject their way into his romantic story in “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” he almost sounds like a wounded animal.
The record finds a new heart in Misty’s chest, but also new sounds. “True Affection” flirts with electronic textures; “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” aims for blue-eyed soul; the album’s loudest moment, the harrowing “The Ideal Husband,” is as raw a rock song as we’ve ever heard from Tillman, with a blown-speaker guitar solo. The outliers never disrupt the Laurel Canyon feel Tillman and producer Jonathan Wilson ace elsewhere; the album is all the better for the varied flavors.
Most of the elements that make I Love You, Honeybear enjoyable are carried over from Fear Fun: Tillman’s voice, great arrangements, witty wordplay. But I keep thinking about that tenderness, the way he marvels at meeting his future wife in “I Went to the Store One Day,” the way he sings “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins),” with its enormous melody: “First time, you let me stay the night despite your own rules/You took off early to go cheat your way through film school/You left a note in your perfect script: ‘Stay as long as you want’/I haven’t left your bed since.” And then, because even someone as verbose as Tillman understands that words have their limits, the mariachi trumpet says the rest. words / j woodbury