Review Summary: Only Father John Misty has the self-awareness and frankly the intelligence to apply his own tendency to seek sanctuary in the frills to the context of his relationships, calculating a vivid snapshot of just how incalculable one’s own human nature truly
The album revs up briefly with some acoustic guitar strums and a piano before a wave of strings swell up to smother over the whole track, as Josh Tillman’s vocals begin to croon the phrase “Honeybear” over and over. Its an exercise in indulgence; a lavish and an extravagant display of affection to the point where its almost sickening, its suffocatingly sweet and almost cheesy in its grandiosity. However once Josh starts to forecast the inevitable fall of humanity is where a balancing system is put into action. This isn’t a new formula for a song, “the world is bad, but I got you” songs are very common, but its fresh here just in how grueling his depiction of the current and future hellscape is, and how simple his response is. “My love, you're the one I wanna watch the ship go down with”, yes it’s a common sentiment to talk about how everything is better with her, but this is unique because Josh is making it undoubtedly clear that the ship is still going down regardless. The way I see it is that balancing act is that the bitterness and pessimism takes the edge off the grand and affectionate declarations he makes on the track and which the orchestra compliment, but interestingly the concept was for the same effect was to be achieved in a different way. Most of these songs were conceived by Josh on a single acoustic guitar and were directly dedicated to his wife, the “Disney Schmaltz’ as he calls it were to cover up the vulnerable sentiment of these songs. He claims he went too far at one point making a version of the album which is “unlistenable”, all in his attempt to seek shelter in the lightshow. He eventually dialed it back to the final product, but it should be noted that he will readily play these songs in acoustic sets, and they work great in that sparse context as well. While the strings are a great addition and I do prefer the LP version to the acoustic performances of the title track especially, the effect is still there in these performances. One reason is that Josh Tillman is sort of a perfect vocalist, he sings effortlessly and has one of the only few falsettos I can tolerate, so when his voice inherently has frills glued to it by being so showy, perfect, and loud, it can work to replace the grandiosity of a string section. He tends to neuter his vocal work with reverb on a lot of his studio material perhaps for the sake of maculating the track, to not smother the listener in regal perfectionism, you can see this clearly on “real love baby”, A standalone single. But even so, a vast amount of credit with regards to how effective this opening track is has to be pointed down solely to the lyric sheet, the bitterness and sentimentality counterbalance each other perfectly, and this is a balancing act which will be kept up throughout the album.
“When you’re smiling and astride me” is a cleaner cut example of a balancing act, The first verse is littered with declarations and sentiments which Josh called “unacceptable” in how seemingly openhearted and romantic they are. These sentiments are frankly cut off by his admission “I’m terrified by that”. The second verse is arguably also unacceptable in how it acts to unmask the persona as its littered with brutally unromantic concessions which all act to depreciate himself, before finally reaching his conclusion that having his wounds be exposed to this individual is how to “live free”, brutal honesty and exposure is mandatory in relationships. And with that being said we have to talk about the character songs.
This track is sandwiched in between the two of these songs where Josh Tillman is exploiting his self-awareness and plays a character for him to depreciate for humor sake, which seems pretty contradictory. This album was written for his wife and a big part of the album discusses the concept of honesty, so it feels weird to throw on a mask and do a little show in the midst of the album. I’ll go in further on this later on, but these songs come off as “character songs”, in how they seem unlike the persona in other songs, but these are likely traits which Josh sees in himself and is magnifying in order to analyze his preexisting anxieties and demons, again I’m going further in as to the “why” at the end of this all.
“Nothing good happens at the goddamn thirsty crow’ was the most immediately enjoyable of the character songs for me, it’s simply very humorous to hear a song from the perspective of a drunk guy shooing off guys from his wife at a bar, and at face value it’s a great self-aware commentary of masculine jealousy and possessiveness. But this song still did grow with me quite a bit, first off I am only now really appreciating this vocal performance, because it’s his most convincingly real to date. There’s no reverb on his vocals here and he does a fantastic job naturally mitigating his vocal capabilities by subtly adding a sense of breathlessness to his voice. By singing this imperfectly he brings the best vocal performance on the album because it really sells this performance of a drunk pissed off guy rambling at whoever dares look at his wife. (I noticed this more because I watched his live performance of this song a lot which he absolutely smokes btw- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Y4qgy2rAMo&t=2316s)
“The night Josh Tillman came to our apartment” is the other character song and I was initially conflicted by this one, I love the song now, but I understand my initial concerns because it’s self-depreciating humor and self-awareness is a lot more subtle that in the other character song- “If you think I’m ***ing crazy” clearly gets across the idea of the character while staying in character, this song however far more careful and slyer. The song is of the persona talking about how he hates his partner, Josh slyly is able to sneak in a self-dig of the persona with every critique he has to say about her. When I first heard the malaprops line I laughed because my brain just thought “oh that’s a witty grammar joke- so I should laugh”, it took me way to long to realize the joke is actually that the persona himself is misusing the word “malaprops” in this instance, and this is likely the most obvious self-dig in the song. The details in this song go down to the small hypocrisy’s like his own use of the word “Convo” completely delegitimizing his portrayal of her, after criticizing her for similar antics. It’s a really smart and witty song, smart enough to laugh at the people who may deeply connect with the song on a first listen.
The only songs I really have a big gripe with is “true affection” which even still has a great premise. Having a song about communicating with someone through technology over the backdrop of a cold electronic soundscape is a really great concept for a track, however the production with the persistently glittering synths on the track truly only serve’s the purpose to get across the gist that the song is electronic and robotic rather than providing any additional substance. The other track I don’t entirely love “Bored in the USA”, for the most part it’s a fine song but the laugh track has always kept me from repeatedly listening to it, I understand the point, but I feel like here the statement undermines the tracks musical worth. However, the laugh track is solely justified, not by its presence on the studio track, but when it appeared with Father John’s appearance on Letterman which is one of the best moves a musical guest have made on a talk show. With that being said it does beg the question of how a deeply political song would appear on an album which has until this point tried to tackle microscopic and personal struggles involving love? Well specifically “Bored in the USA” is an anomaly in how it doesn’t deal with the precedented themes whatsoever, and that does work against the album sort of, but it is resolved in the next track.
“Holy ***” acts as the albums climax and almost explains the erratic nature of the album’s persona. The song starts out as a list of loosely tied together observations on humanity until close to the end, where after a gush of strings the persona breaks the triolet and begins to talk about the precedented topic of the album-love, but still speaking of it in a macro scale. The final line of the track shrinks down the point of the song to where it started, two people- “But what I fail to see is what that's gotta do with you and me”. I see this Track as the climax, because for one it certainly sounds like it, the strings kick in roughly 2 minutes into the song, prior to this its just Josh belting out the lyrics and melody with an acoustic guitar and piano, this is the only song where it feels like the song is trying to justify the introduction of a grand string section, which it successfully does. But it feels like a climax to the whole record with regards how this explosion of sound almost explains the Josh’s neuroticism throughout the whole album, for one thing the song prior to this, as well as itself is a contradiction to the albums opening message. Josh opened the album describing an apocalypse but always redirected the focus back to how he loves his wife, the past two songs however are wholly focused on macro themes, capitalism, and social woes. Even when Josh addresses love in “Holy ***” he initially describes it in macro terms, it’s a direct betrayal of the albums opening declaration, and the final line of the song addresses that betrayal and acknowledges that these tangents are indeed very weird in the context of this album. This final line to me at least reveals what the persona has been trying to do throughout the album, to find refuge from vulnerability, which in turn explains the inconsistency of the album. In “Holy ***” Josh is trying to latch onto and hide under massive issues which are outside of his control, he tries to put on a mask in the character songs which accidently gouges his persona even further, opening up for the explosions of unromantic honesty in “the ideal husband” and “when you’re smiling and astride me”. The past 10 tracks have been littered with contradictions and the cataclysmic conclusion of “holy ***” acts as the acknowledgement of the rollercoaster of themes and emotions the album has been dealing with- it acknowledges the incalculability of love and how it changed and will continue to change Josh.
“I went to the store one day” is the album’s coda, and it is the best song on the album. It’s the most intimate song on the album, with the mix largely being dominated by Josh’s vocals and an acoustic guitar, there is a string section in the background which is pointless but I honestly block it out. The song acts as a sobering reflection on the past ten tracks, recounting the start of it all and what the future will look like. We come full circle and the declarations made on the first track are back but here its not fantastical, its somber and unsure. He’s so unsure he doesn’t know what to say, baffled by the mundane and groggy start of a wild and perpetual hegira-
“Insert here, a sentiment re: our golden years”