father john misty - i love you, honeybear

Mary-Elisabeth Moore

In I Love You, Honeybear Joshua Tillman stays true to the folksy masculine rock-ballad vibe he established in the first album he released under the moniker Father John Misty, Fear Fun. The instrumentation has little variation between the albums – some light drumming and tambourine shaking, guitars that help each song roll forward, and an earnest voice that blends smoothly with the backup vocals whenever they join in, rendering an aurora echo-effect floating above each song, as if being sung into a ravine. 

The cover art, depicting Mary and Jesus flanked by beasts, is like a watercolour work of Marc Chagall, or a funky reinterpretation of a Renaissance sacra conversazione. The religious theme is old-fashioned, as is the title of the album and first track ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, which carries a sweetness that could have only come from a time when people were nicer and affection was more readily expressed. The album is a story of self-loathing, of not being good enough for his ‘Honeybear’, of the pain that comes with being a man who can’t open his heart, while simultaneously being unable to stop himself from chasing after love. Even the happy songs hurt. 

The first three songs, I Love You, Honeybear, Chateau Lobby #4, and True Affection are love songs at face value, but beyond the surface are bitter self-deprecations. Tillman sings to the good girl he’s going to marry, promising her a bright devotion that will make up for how terrible things are both inside and outside of their relationship.  

Much of Honeybear is refreshingly classic. Tillman holds up the pains of today against the ideals of the past, with tracks like ‘Ideal Husband’. The album as a whole is sprinkled with joking references to conservative morality such as abstaining from premarital sex and fulfilling traditional gender roles, while Tillman harshly implies that he is incapable of meeting any of these societal expectations. In ‘Ideal Husband’, he angrily spits out his flaws, underlining how he’s hurt people with lines like ‘Every woman that I’ve slept with / every friendship I’ve neglected’. 

Tillman opens up every wound and then pushes you into a bath of hydrogen peroxide, not just striking but electrifying every nerve into a state of frenzied discontent. By the time you’ve reached the penultimate track, appropriately titled ‘Holy Shit’, the only antidote Tillman can offer the listener is an overdose of numbing pessimism. Tillman pairs the first cynical lyrics of social commentary with some slow strumming of his acoustic guitar; the twinkling of a piano enters in later but offers us no lightness, only another sad layer of sharply played emotion. While the swelling of violins gives an arch to the song, Tillman’s voice is an emotional plateau of soulful sadness. Tillman continues on, rattling off terrible truths of love and life, returning twice back to the chorus ‘Oh, and no one ever knows the real you, and life is brief’, which he sings with a sarcastic casualness, as if it’s merely something he forgot to mention.