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There can be no discussion of I Love You, Honeybear--Josh Tillman's sophomore album under the Father John Misty moniker--without first acknowledging just how problematic the persona appears to be. His ethos (and appeal) is extracted directly from a bit of that hazy Californian mysticism which so shaped the rock n'roll of the mid-70s. Legend has it that prior to the release of 2012's Fear Fun, a listless Tillman left his home in Seattle, hopped in a van, and drove down the West Coast of the US equipped with ample quantities of existential angst and psychedelic mushrooms. It was at the end of this pilgrimage, in a shack in LA's Laurel Canyon, that Father John Misty was born. And, just as his origins suggest, he is more archetype than alter-ego. I Love You, Honeybear is drenched in predictable debauchery and misogyny, but just when you think Tillman is method acting or keeping up appearances, he strays toward self-conscious profundity. Confused? Aren't we all.
Gone are the days in which the lyrics of white, heterosexual, longhaired pseudo-gurus will go unexamined, and there is no way that Josh Tillman doesn't recognise this. Father John is too complex to be a pure anachronism. He is constantly toeing the line between frankness and insincerity; Honeybear is rich with sarcasm, flagrant in some places and barely discernable in others. It is impossible to take seriously, but too damn compelling to be dismissed.
The title track is a mid-tempo taste of melancholy Americana, complete with cinematic strings and bittersweet declarations of emotion. Tillman stages a scene featuring a couple deep in love, entirely detached from their surroundings: "I barely know how long a moment is/unless we're naked getting high on the mattress/while the global market crashes," he croons over an orchestral crescendo. When the album begins, we find Tillman cripplingly smitten (now-wife Emma is reportedly the muse in question, and the stranger he encounters in the parking lot in 'I Went To The Store One Day'.) However, Honeybear is largely an out-of-sequence account of his indiscretions and dissatisfactions leading up to their meeting.
On 'The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt', he lays into a nameless woman, enumerating her undesirable (read: assertive) traits. Convinced of her arrogance, he devotes three-and-a-half minute song to slating her while strings swell and a xylophone tinkles in the background. The figure in question embodies a lot of the stereotypes that one might associate with wealthy, Southern Californian women, he claims: "every insufferable convo/features her patiently explaining the cosmos."
Father John Misty is a hypocrite: a megalomaniac disgusted by self-centredness in the opposite sex. For just a moment, it seems as though he might be placated by a relationship with a worthy woman, but Father John isn't nearly earnest enough to let love overwhelm him. His dissatisfaction is written all over 'Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow', and this time a plaintive acoustic guitar ballad provides the backdrop to a jealous lament. Months on the road leave Father John's lady (presumably his muse, this time around) vulnerable to the attentions of other men. But who could blame them, apparently "it's hard to believe that a good-hearted woman/could have a body that'd make your daddy cry." There is just no pleasing Tillman-- if Honeybear teaches us anything, it is that love is far from a cure for the anguish of an angsty white man.
Occasionally, Tillman takes a step back from his own predicament to ponder the hopelessness of 21st Century life. Lead single 'Bored in the USA' is an appropriately subdued piano ballad bemoaning hollow, soulless American consumer culture. In an ironic nod to the American Dream, he asks "is this the part where I get all I ever wanted?" Predictably, he is met with debt, subprime loans, and a prescription for antidepressants. On 'Holy Shit', Tillman takes to lyrical solipsism: "no one ever really knows you/and life is brief/so I've heard/but what's that gotta do with this black hole in me?" It takes a special kind of narcissism to divorce your singular experience of suffering from the endemic experience of human discontent. No one has told Father John Misty that he isn't the only person to have spied a flaw in the system.
Ultimately, Tillman utilizes a familiar, but perfectly executed, take on the folk-rock idiom to highlight the tensions within him. He's a miserable and perma-stoned single man turned uneasy paramour whose act of love is dwarfed by the black hole that is the culture he lives in. You'd think that we might be as tired of dysfunctional heterosexual love narratives as we are of left-wing rockers hating on capitalism. The fact that I Love You, Honeybear is arguably one of the most anticipated albums of 2015 shows that maybe the joke is on us.
Persona or not, Father John Misty is an unabashed bundle of contradictions. It isn't worth sitting around trying to piece together what is ironic here and what isn't--insincerity is part of the package. But maybe it is worth asking yourself why we're still interested in what Josh Tillman has to say. And maybe, just maybe, it is because some of his contradictions are yours, too--there are plenty of unhappy consumers out there seeking a mythical other as an antidote to their own boredom. Hell, there's a market for that, it's called "online dating". At the end of the day, Tillman manages to acknowledge his own myopia and doesn't feel the need to rectify it. If that isn't privilege, I don't know what is. Granted, Father John is no everyman, but in highlighting his own hypocrisy, he might illuminate others' along the way.
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