Review Summary: I've said awful things, such awful things.
While it’s likely unintentional, the release of I Love You, Honeybear
the week of Valentine’s Day makes for an interesting juxtaposition. The latter is a largely invented occasion for manufactured romance propped up by the service industry. The former takes all the trappings of a plastic holiday – the bombast proudly displayed in its arrangements, the sentimental, almost painfully direct nature of its lyrics – and covers it, as Father John Misty describes his bed in the title track, in “mascara, blood, ash, and cum.” It’s a record concerned not with the illusion of love we like to sell each other this time of year but the one that actually drives people to pick out those corny cards and tell someone they love them without artifice or shame, something bloody and real and often all too fu
On his 2012 debut Fear Fun
, it was sometimes difficult to tell where the Father John Misty persona, usually drunk and horny and disastrously enamored with Los Angeles, ended, and Joshua Tillman, the long time songwriter and ex-Fleet Foxes drummer responsible for him, began. There’s no such confusion here. I Love You, Honeybear
is a borderline uncomfortable listening experience, so personal and finely detailed is its descriptions of Tillman’s life, his lovers and wife, his one-night stands and common mistakes. His recent marriage informs every song here, from the delirious lovemaking of the title track to the self-destructive wake-up call of “The Ideal Husband” to the idolatry of “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me.” Tillman’s neuroticism would be off-putting if it wasn’t so finely tuned, able to celebrate the flaws of others while not letting his own go unpunished, turned bare with a critical eye and a biting turn of phrase. We don’t just get the dizzying fall of “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” where a lover can do no wrong (“you left a note in your perfect script / stay as long as you want / I haven’t left your bed since”) and she like, totally gets you (“I haven’t hated all the same things / as somebody else since I remember”). We also get the poisonous jealousy and selfish possessiveness of “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” and the nagging self-doubt and overbearing thoughts haunting “True Affection.” “Bored in the U.S.A.,” meanwhile, is a caustic survey of its protagonist’s “achievement” of predetermined social milestones, the track’s canned laugh track a searing indictment of the worthlessness of another person’s standards on one’s own happiness. Yet the track’s most indelible lyric is the one spoken between a love growing old: “Now I’ve got a lifetime to consider all the ways / I grow more disappointing to you as my beauty warps and fades / I suspect you feel the same.”
Tillman takes his musical cues from his confessional forebears, ‘70s singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and James Taylor, his soulful tenor a warm and inviting presence that makes his refreshingly modern lyrics and transparent sensibilities all the more affecting. Tillman envelops his songs in the same bucolic Americana that was already in fine form on Fear Fun
but here buttresses the proceedings with a more grandiose production style, a touch of mariachi horns here, a surprisingly deft synth-pop turn there. There’s also a bit of solo John Lennon, the cynical asshole who’s not above viciously ripping a girl obviously trying to impress him on “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt” (“She says, like, literally music is the air she breathes / and the malapropos make me wanna fu
ckin’ scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / well, it’s literally not that”), but who is still down to bed her anyways in an abrupt, unsettling climax (“I obliged later on when you begged me to choke you”). It’s a gorgeous song, an almost swooning folk lullaby that stands in sharp contrast to its sneering jerk of a narrator. Tillman seems to find a twisted pleasure in showing the listener that he remains as mired in the smug dirt and contorted judgment as the rest of us, smitten or not. It’s certainly an open question throughout the album whether love can truly change someone for the better. As the typically incisive Tillman notes on the gospel-tinged “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” "I can hardly believe I’ve found you and I’m terrified by that.” Finding someone who makes you examine all those disgusting qualities you’ve built up over the years, and to will yourself not to destroy it all" Yes, terrifying is just the right word for it.
I Love You, Honeybear
ends with two of its simplest, most candid snapshots. For all the album makes of Tillman the skeptic, Tillman the wisecrack, Tillman the asshole, both “Holy Sh
it” and “I Went To The Store One Day” strip down all the layers Tillman has built around himself and endlessly picked apart, like a worrying bird, into the record’s core: love the one you’re with. “Holy Sh
it” turns a litany of historical touchstones into an angry rhetorical question, where the things he’s told to love don’t match up with what he’s actually feeling, or ever felt, really. “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / but I fail to see what that’s gotta do with you and me,” he sings, the realization that there’s only one thing out there that really matters. That feeling is more concrete on “I Went To The Store One Day,” a song where all the veils Tillman has thrown up as Father John Misty are torn down into a gently fingerpicked portrait of the day he met his future wife. The strings that rise up behind his wispy lyrics would be saccharine in any other context. Here, they represent a frailty too easily broken. A chance meeting, a lucky aside; these are the kinds of things that make or break entire relationships. “For love to find us of all people / I never though it’d be so simple,” Tillman whispers, before daydreaming about a future that may never come and coming to a beautifully uncertain conclusion: “Insert here / a sentiment re: our golden years.”
Father John Misty can pretend to know what’s to come; Josh Tillman is realistic enough not to even try. I Love You, Honeybear
is the rare love letter that manages to capture all the ugly, bitter sides to a relationship, the angles covered in shadow and hidden behind front doors, because it understands that these are the moments that make up a full and fulfilling relationship between two people with issues and histories and feelings that are more often awful and conflicted than not. Love is never a Hallmark card. I Love You, Honeybear
makes you glad it isn’t.