In describing the nature of his showy, theatrical Father John Misty persona, former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman said that “more often than not what you hear are actually the affectations of an ‘alter-ego’, or a cartoon of an emotionally heightened persona,” a statement which perfectly encapsulates the narrative tone of his newest album, I Love You, Honeybear. The material in I Love You, Honeybear is decidedly hyperbolic, grandiose, and downright absurd—in “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment”, Tillman describes finding his lover with “her best friend in the tub,” then ending up “singing ‘Silent Night’ in three parts”—but beneath the surreal, gonzo sheen of the album is a biting rawness that only a ludicrously over-the-top narrative could accomplish. Moments like the tub scene in “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” are merely red herrings which distract from darker content—”The Night Josh Tillman…” is not humorous, but rather a spiteful account of the darker side of romance, with lyrics featuring the Father John Misty character venomously critiquing his narcissistic lover for her malaprops and vanity, only for him to end up declaring that he “Obliged later on/When you begged me to choke ya.” This harrowing tone that pervades I Love You, Honeybear separates it from many other concept albums in that it truly blurs the line between reality and fantasy; while the theatricality of Honeybear may rightfully invoke comparisons to the work of glam icons David Bowie and Elton John, Tillman also finds himself among a certain class of brooding, sardonic American lyricists that includes The National’s Matt Berninger and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, lyricists which, like Tillman, heavily fixate upon the abstract, gargantuan topic of the American Dream.
This question of the American Dream is at once secondary and central to the message of I Love You Honeybear, for while I Love You, Honeybear is ostensibly a love story, it’s also about what being in love in modern America actually means. Such a broad topic, of course, takes more than just a few arguments to make a truly effective point about, and apocalypse, alienation, and loneliness are just a handful of the themes Tillman touches upon in the sprawling I Love You, Honeybear. This aforementioned millennial loneliness is in part defined by Tillman’s discontent with the digital age: “Isolation, online friends,” “Infotainment” and “The golden era of TV” are just a few of the topics scrutinized in “Holy Shit,” and in “True Affection”, he asks “When can we talk/With the face/Instead of using all these strange devices?” This jaded reaction to technology does not mean that Father John Misty is just some cranky Luddite, as the track is ironically a blissful electro-pop song in the vein of Baths or Age of Adz-era Sufjan Stevens; rather, these qualms with technology are merely meant to underscore bigger themes, such as the failure of Father John Misty to properly communicate with his significant other, and how truly alienating all the hubbub and information overload of the digital age can be. The modern demons Misty runs from in “Bored In The USA” and “Holy Shit” are catalysts for a loneliness so fearsome, so aggressive that once he finds love, he can’t imagine life without his lover—in “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”, he woefully laments that “I can hardly believe I’ve found you/And I’m terrified by that.” Perhaps even more important to the message of Honeybear is how this deep infatuation is just as draining as it is invigorating—in “Strange Encounter”, Misty swears off his wayward lifestyle after a scare with his lover, and in “The Ideal Husband”, Misty breaks under the weight of his guilt and pretentiousness, ending up confronting his lover with an unabashedly affectionate rant. These sudden catharses hit home so well because they aren’t sugar-coated, but rather drip with self-efficacy so candid that it’s nearly cringe-inducing, and that is what makes Honeybear such a work of lyrical genius—the album’s abundant cynical humor and general absurdity are perfect channels for addressing harsh, sensitive human emotion.
All these different gripes Tillman expresses via Father John Misty, however, are merely fragments of his overall thesis, which reaches a poignant conclusion in “Bored in the USA.” Misty’s conundrum in “Bored In The USA” is a problem as old as America—a terminal case of ennui—wherein so much of the modern world is dull, insipid, or worse, depressing to him. After all his incisive commentary and acerbic wit, Father John Misty finds himself questioning the American Dream, asking “Is this the part where I get everything I ever wanted/And if so, can I get my money back?” only to be met with the vacuous laughter of a hidden audience. A pessimist would take this to mean that life in America is a sick joke being played on the individual, and given the lyrical content of I Love You, Honeybear, that may not be too hard to believe, but Tillman at least proves to be a somewhat hopeful Romantic in the end. In “I Went To The Store One Day,” Father John Misty finds himself still enamored with some vague notion of American escapism, fantasizing about plantation homes and dowries—while there may not be such a thing as unequivocal happiness for Misty, Tillman seems to acknowledge that there is still real magic in some events, like chance encounters at the store that end up as much more.
Ultimately, I Love You, Honeybear is simply one of those bona fide masterpieces that captures a moment in time in a nearly inexplicable way. Never mind that much of the album could have been made a few decades ago, rather than in 2015—I Love You, Honeybear is such a gorgeous, deep work that it is instantly timeless. From the soaring doomsday-march of the title track to the wistful coda of “I Went To The Store One Day”, I Love You, Honeybear hardly misses a beat lyrically or musically, every orchestral arrangement, vocal melody and drum beat interlocking perfectly. According to a recent interview, Tillman’s wife told him that he “needed to not be afraid to let the songs be beautiful,” a challenge that Tillman fully meets on Honeybear; “Chateau #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” is perfect evidence of this, a vibrant, bombastically orchestrated piece that still, somehow, speaks to small, private emotional matters, imbued with a true feeling of intimacy at its core. Even more minute touches affect the album’s impact drastically—it’s hard not to notice even the smallest bits of genius on Honeybear, such as the frenzied bursts of guitar on “The Ideal Husband”, or the clever drum work on “Strange Encounter” that makes Tillman’s delivery of the line “The moment you came to I swore I would change” that much more emphatic. Together, Tillman’s lyrics and music evoke otherworldly feelings that almost seem too trite to put into words; I Love You, Honeybear defies rote mental analysis, a work too achingly human, too searingly passionate to be doomed to the fate of being taken apart like a broken contraption. Father John Misty’s greatest strength is that he does not preach, but rather, like any good artist, he vividly demonstrates his meaning in an abstract, human language, resulting in an absolutely essential, truly beautiful work of art.