In hushed tones, just before beginning ‘A Man Needs A Maid/Heart Of Gold’ Neil Young declared:
“This a new song about… a Broadway Musical. Some people look at their life and say ‘Well my life’s like a movie’ and then talk about what scenes went down and in some movies there’s tunes y’know? And this is like a show tune for my movie.”
I am sure by this point in his career, Joshua Tillman aka Father John Misty, would have thought he had surpassed the ‘Shakey’ comparisons with the release of his 9th studio album, ‘I Love You Honeybear’. Well, on most accounts he has boldly blown them out of the water, but this quote from Young’s ‘Live At Massey Hall 1971’ performance feels particularly relevant.
The notion of life as a movie fits perfectly into the wacked-out, self-destructive frame-by-frame world seen through the kaleidoscopic eyes of Father John Misty. The sex and violence, the glitz and glamour, the decadence and drama, all seem to wrestle for dear life in a blood-spattered amphitheatre for his audience to gawp at. Perhaps more tellingly though, it could refer to how this is all just an act, with each of us playing our parts and a lot of it is facade. Which would fit straight into the Misty ideology, as Tillman often plays a caricature of himself.
When examining FJM, Tillman paraphrases Philip Roth stating: “It’s all of me and none of me, if you can’t see that, you won’t get it” which isn’t a slight. ‘I Love You Honeybear’ is overloaded with clichés, pretension and extravagant, sweeping orchestral passages. The magnetism behind the record is that there is almost no line drawn to discern the deeply serious from the goofy playfulness. Free-an’-easy John Misty, in all his excitement and experimentation can do no wrong and this feeling becomes contagious as a listener.
The fact that this all stemmed out of an “immobilizing period of depression” could almost be forgotten, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was this dark period that provoked the transformation:
“I’m sure it’s some weird manifestation of self-loathing. Once I addressed that, I hit a point where I was ready to re-engage my previous pre-adolescent stage, painting, writing etc.” admits Tillman.
Like a victim who has to quickly up sticks and flee the safety of his home due to an all-consuming fire, both Tillman’s so-sincere-it-was-stressful solo act identity and his lost weekends of re-recording ‘Tonight’s The Night’ were left in ruins. He was soon ‘driving down the coast with nowhere to go… with enough mushrooms to choke a horse’. As the road opened up, Seattle and the Fleet Foxes faded into the horizon.
Father John Misty’s official debut ‘Fear Fun’ was the result of this hedonistic healing process. Having settled in Laurel Canyon and found his true narrative voice, Tillman felt liberated and most certainly sounded it. There was still an ‘On The Beach’ ambiance, but its expansive Country, Americana and ‘Cali-pop’ vision immediately set it apart from his previous material. Gone were the days when a Fleet Foxes fan would compliment him on his drumming and with certitude he would retort, “Oh, I’m not a drummer”.
Then came the moment when he ‘fell in love with a stranger in a parking lot.’
“What the fuck was I supposed to write about then? Kissing in the rain? Riding dolphins betwixt rainbows of eternity?
My ambition, aside from making an indulgent, soulful, and epic sound worthy of the subject matter, was to address the sensuality of fear, the terrifying force of love, the unutterable pleasures of true intimacy, and the destruction of emotional and intellectual prisons in my own voice. Blammo”
What a glorious finale. With ‘I Love You Honeybear’ Tillman takes on a whole new host of Newman & Nilsson nuances, with his whimsicality also drawing to mind Loudon Wainwright III and his blend of the sacred and profane giving daring nods toward Leonard Cohen.
The precedent for the whole album is set right from the opening salvo. It’s the sound of someone who has been shut out and survived on brief scraps of affection, finally skipping their way through the gates of heaven. Tillman knows too well the dangers and difficulties of trying to explain and pin down love, so he embraces this, placing corny sentiment next to dystopian predications: “Everything is doomed and nothing will be spared, but I love you Honeybear”.
The seductive, sepia softness of ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’ casts a steamy haze and deals some quite remarkable imagery with “I want to take you in the kitchen, lift up your wedding dress that someone was probably murdered in”.
If that hasn’t challenged some perceptions, for ‘True Affection’ it seems as if Tillman has teamed up with M83 and Bonobo. Calling to arms the pulsating drive of a drum machine, a mesh of arcade-esque synth lines and delicate string lines and a distant falsetto. Creating a digital opus that could easily slot in on Sufjan Stevens ‘The Age of Adz’.
The soothing ‘60s glow of ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’ is an embittered and entertaining account of an exhausting relationship. It possibly uncovers some of his own insecurities, hence the title, or worse yet it reveals his fears of how it could derail. Not to worry though, as ‘When You’re Smiling and Astride Me’ emerges with such certainty and soulfulness, the blaring Hammond organ and smooth vocal trills could make Matthew E. White whip off his horn-rimmed specs in amazement.
Aside from the pristine production work and team of instrument-slinging gurus Jonathan Wilson put in place for this record, by the midway point Tillman is really finding his lyrical stride. The saloon crawl, ‘Nothing Good Ever Happens At the Goddamn Thirsty Crow’ deals with infatuation, rivalry and we hear Tillman uttering something of a self-proclaimed mantra “I may act like a lunatic, if you think I’m fucking crazy you’re mistaken. Keep moving”.
‘Bored In The USA’ might be where many were introduced to the bizarre, occult beliefs of Father John Misty. After performing the number on Letterman, complete with canned laughter and a player piano. Addressing both, our need for constant stimuli and the fact that ‘The American Dream’ has become a boring, overhyped waking nightmare, Tillman is truly in his element.
‘Holy Shit’ takes this even further opening with “Ancient holy wars, dead religions, holocaust” topics an ordained father would normally handle more subtly; recounting our ruination in such a hap hazardous nature, whilst still making it feel touching, becomes so utterly engaging that all attempts at resistance are futile.
Then with ‘I Went To The Store One Day’ we have the perfect Rom-com epiphany as Tillman testifies: “For love to find us of all people, I never thought it would be so simple”. With ‘I Love You Honeybear’ J. Tillman has finally found a ‘true self’ and identity to share, and in turn, a lover and an audience to share it with. Whilst his Fleet Foxes bandmate Robin Pecknold is busy scoring an off-Broadway play, it seems Father John Misty might just be stealing the lead. Blammo.
Review by: David Weir
Released 9 Feb 2015 via Bella Union
Order via Amazon