Under the alter-ego of Father John Misty, John Tillman, former Fleet Foxes drummer, has firmly established himself as a ground-breaker within the indie, folk-pop cannon with his remarkable album “I Love You, Honeybear.” Tillman’s sophomore release is an intimate and personal but consciously unsentimental exploration of love. The album speaks to the singularity of any couple’s love story, specifically that which he shares with his wife, while respecting the universal experience of exclusivity two people share when falling in love.
I surmised that the album was largely inspired by the goings-on of Tillman’s own life since so many similar themes are explored with such honesty, vulnerability, grit, and richly lyrical detail. After a little research, I found this to be true. Honeybear’s eleven tracks predominantly chronicle the lead up to his marriage to Emma Elizabeth Tillman, capturing the rush of their chance meeting in a parking lot to their first night together to his desire for her to take his name. A few songs also touch on life before meeting his honeybear, contrasting the emptiness of loveless sex and his past sins with the total fulfillment he feels with Emma, the weariness he feels in the face of this messed up world with the meaning he finds in love.
Tillman adapts the love song to suit the intimacy of his own unique experience and quirky aesthetic. He has unapologetically created a collection of distinctive songs on love and connection that transcend the modern indie-folk genre in sound, branching off into pop, punk, synth, soul, and even mariachi, and lyric. His instrumentation and arrangements are constantly surprising, both in the pairing of lyric with sound and in the progression of the songs themselves. But what I love most about the genre-bending, strange beauty that is “Honeybear” are Tillman’s moments of gritty disclosure and his lines of brilliantly lush imagery (my particular favorite – “the Rorschach sheets where we make love”).
In dramatic fashion, the opening track and title song paints a glorious picture of falling in love despite the depravity and destruction of the world. A dreamy chorus of “I love you, honeybear” circles around lamentations of death filling the streets, suspicious neighbors, inherited mental illness, and all range of social malaise. It’s an oddly romantic song in which Tillman juxtaposes the strength of his love and commitment with the inevitable downfall of the world in lyrics such as “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with.”
I was first turned on to Father John Misty when I heard “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” by chance on the radio. It felt, quite simply, like THE definitive song about falling in love. I was immediately swept up in the playfulness of the mariachi band and Tillman’s sweet lyrics, absolutely reeking of tenderness and infatuation and loving abandon. Now I’m already married, but as soon as I heard this song, I instantly wanted to go back in time to my wedding day and dance my heart out to this tune with my husband. Albeit, the tempo isn’t really appropriate for any kind of conventional dancing, but the images “Chateau” evokes are of love’s purity and joy and exaltation – the very things I want my wedding day and subsequent marriage to constantly evoke. “Chateau Lobby #4” is one of those rare songs that spectacularly captures the complete essence of the remarkable experience of falling in love.
We get a taste of Tillman’s take on soul in “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” a song about loving someone with honesty and full disclosure. I adore how Tillman ponders on loving someone for who they are: “I’ll never try to change you/As if I could, and if I were to, what’s the part that I’d miss most?” Although lyrically the song is relatively straightforward and short in length, Tillman draws this one out to its maximum emotive potential, making the simplicity of the sentiment all the more powerful and unmistakable.
The lyrics of “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” a song which recounts with shame the singer’s drunken mishaps, seem like the perfect fit to a fast-paced, country-infused tune. While I certainly hear more country strains on this track than any other from “Honeybear,” Tillman surprisingly slows this one down to a ballad of sorts. It becomes a mournful lament on his mistakes in judgment and action and it works remarkably well.
“Bored in the USA” is Tillman’s largest departure from love songs, turning instead to witty social commentary set to piano and a laugh track. The restrictions, obsessions, and emptiness of middle class American life are all subject to Tillman’s harsh critique in the lead single off of “Honeybear.” It’s at once an interesting satire, a conventionally appealing song in the vein of piano men everywhere, and a plea for something deeper.
Tillman closes out his album by recounting the very event which inspired it all: meeting his wife by chance in a store parking lot. “I Went to the Store One Day” narrates their initial encounter and the absurd role chance plays in it all. The choice to end with this song is wise, as though Tillman explicitly withheld a description of the circumstances that gave way to the love expressed on “Honeybear” until his very last chance. But it also ends the album on a note of hope, with this great meditation on the future that is equal parts sardonic and endearing: “Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years.”