Everything is clearer when you’re in love.
Father John Misty’s decision to release his latest album I Love You Honeybear just before Valentine’s day, might just be a coincidence of course, but the relationship between music and heart strings is certainly not a new idea. Whilst pop-music has always been chock full of love songs, just ask Steve Wright, there’s plenty less obviously lovey love songs knocking about too.
Even the most miserable, crotchety old, indie-gloomsters tend to have occasionally broken into a bit of flamboyant warbling when the heart goes ring-a-ding-ding. Take Morrissey, he may have sounded unbothered by his girlfriend ending up in a coma, but he was still a human and he needed to be loved, perhaps never more so than on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, ok so his description of “a 10-tonne truck that kills the both of us” might not top a spot of dinner and a bunch of flowers on most peoples wish lists, but “to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die” couldn’t sound more Romeo and Juliet if it was written by the bard himself.
Nick Cave, “let love in” but ended up concluding “Far worse to be Love’s lover than the lover that Love has scorned” whatever that means, Bright Eyes wanted “a lover I don’t have to love” and Ian Curtis of course was torn apart by it…but here’s a question world: Can there ever be too many love songs? Have we reached a point where love can no longer be explained in any more ways?
Now, in just one year’s time
I’ve become jealous, rail-thin
Prone to paranoia when I’m stoned
If this isn’t true love, someone oughta put me in a home
Think there’s plenty of life in the old genre yet, don’t you?
Think back to the start of 2012, Fleet Foxes are touring their second album Helplessness Blues, an album that reaches number 2 in the UK chart, number 4 in the US, and top 10 in countless countries. It’s fair to say at this moment they are one of the biggest alternative bands on the planet. Drummer Josh Tillman chose this moment to leave the band!
Career suicide? Not to his mind at least. Quoting a tale of shaman, a psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca and finding yourself naked in a tree on a cliff top, Tillman claims this was the moment he discovered his own voice, as he put it “I realised I am the hero of my own adventure”. Stepping away from playing other peoples songs he started to record his own. Teaming up with Jonathan Wilson, he took up the moniker Father John Misty and produced the excellent, if somewhat unremarkable collection Fear Fun, it broadened the pallet of his previous solo efforts, under his own name, and started to channel both his sense of humour and musical ambition, two factors that he explores still further on this his second album, I Love You Honeybear.
Music and humour can be unlikely bed-fellows and throughout recorded history it often falls flat on it’s face, but I Love You Honeybear is, in places at least, genuinely amusing, as are the listening notes that come with it. They’re far too weighty and tied in with the music they accompany to re-publish here but they may well alone be worth the price of the album. The humour held within the songs is vital to the joy of listening to the record, because frankly in places it’s a record that gets pretty dark. Take, The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment, it might start of sounding like a sister record to the Velvet Underground’s SundayMorning, but lyrically it’s fairly horrific. Recollecting a one-night stand with a girl, which putting it nicely, Josh isn’t the biggest fan of! “She says “like, literally music is the air she breathes” and the malaprops make me wanna fucking scream” he notes before going on to list “the few main things I hate about her” including how every “insufferable conversation features her patiently explaining the cosmos of which she is the middle” and “the soulful affectation white girls put on” but despite all that we find Tillman “fumbling with her buttons” and finally obliging when “you begged me to choke you.” It’s fair to say it’s not his proudest moment, indeed for an album that’s primarily about love and finding happiness, the other main theme, self-loathing, is also oddly omnipresent.
Essentially the album plots how his life meandered through various situation to end up where he is now, married, happy and in love. There’s plenty of tracks about his wife and his love for her yes, but there’s also a series of almost flash-back to how lost he was without her. There’s the hazy dream like Strange Encounters, a beautiful musical recollection of a girl who will “only ever be that girl who just almost died in my apartment” as he goes on trying to find somebody but not like this. The production from Tillman and his partner in crime Jonathan Wilson is stunning, waves of distorted guitar, cooed male backing vocals and a piano line with all the grandiose, cinematic tendencies more akin to a Bond soundtrack.
The best moments here though are the heart-wrenchingly honest recollection of real love, not the sentimental greeting cards and Huw Grant film love people generally like to imagine, but genuine, honest, difficult love. There’s Nothing Good Ever Happened at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow, recalls him touring Germany, where he apparently has no fan base, while Emma stayed at home. It flashes from Tillman, turning down the advances of female admirers, replying to her advances “why the long way blondie? I’m already taken – sorry.” Whilst Emma is back at home he’s “on the road again, for months at a time” and “it doesn’t take half that long for men about town to forget what’s mine” whilst “she’s got to listen your half arsed lines.” The songs got a fantastic smoky, blues feel accentuated by jazz-tinged clarinets and a gorgeous delta-blues line on an electric guitar. The lyrics are undeniably, old-fashioned and more than a touch possessive, a fact he acknowledges in the listening notes as “an over-developed and possibly archaic sense of male entitlement” brought about by an inferiority complex and isolation. It’s an honest look inside his mind, without the usual filter people put on to try and appear to be something they are not. The whole record is unflinchingly honest throughout.
On Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins) he sings of how “people are boring, but you’re something else completely” and how “he hasn’t hated all the same things as somebody else since I remember” they’re fairly grouchy sentiments sure, but in his his hands they sound delightfully romantic. He recalls the first time “you let me stay the night despite your own rules” and how Emma “left a note in her perfect script, “stay as long as you like” and I haven’t left your bed since.” It’s paired with a beautifully judged musical accompaniment, there’s hints of Sufjan Stevens in the acoustic that starts it and the gentle build of strings, complex rhythms and latterly some spectacular mariachi trumpets. It sounds utterly joyous and entirely in keeping with the lyrical content.
The title track is the sound of a couple locking themselves up from the world, “fuck the world, damn straight malaise, it may be just us who feel this way” he sings alongside references to being “naked, getting high on the mattress, while the global market crashes.” Throughout the album there’s the feeling of two souls escaping from reality as the world collapses around them, be it global, as demonstrated on the excellent Bored in the USA or local problems, again on this track he sings “I brought my mother’s depression, you’ve got your father’s scorn and wayward aunt’s schizophrenia, but everything is fine, don’t give into despair, because I love you honeybear.”
The self-deprecation peaks surprisingly on a track entitled The Ideal Husband, the heaviest track he’s ever recorded with a straight forward rock drum beat, blaring organs, a pulsing bass line and heavily distorted guitars. It’s a track that see’s Tillman list all his faults and previous mistakes “Didn’t call when my grandma died, spent my folk-bucks getting drunk and high. I’ve done things unprotected and proceeded to drive home wasted” before he attempts to make amends “I came by at seven in the mornings, said “Baby I’m finally succumbing” said something dumb like “I’m tired of running let’s put a baby in the oven! Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?” as proposals go it’s probably not the most romantic ever, but at least he’s telling it like it is!
It’s an album that slowly builds up to a really quite stunning finale, the closing two tracks are masterpieces. Holy Shit reviews the history and philosophy of love and questions what it’s got to do with how he feels. Over a strummed acoustic, and beautiful piano he ask what has anyone else’s love got to do with his? “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity but what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me?” He’s describing feelings so entirely introverted and personal, that he can’t even put himself into the context of history or traditional notions of love, it’s his love and he’s going to do it his own way.
The closing track, I Went To The Store One Day, is just one of the most beautiful love song you’ll ever hear. It’s Tillman looking back over his life, despite the fact it’s only just getting going. He tells of how they met in a car-park while he was buying coffee and cigarettes, how “now in just one years time. I’ve become jealous, rail-thin, prone to paranoia when I’m stoned. If this isn’t true love someone ought to put me in a home.” He recalls asking “say, do you wanna get married?” and how “for love to find us of all people. I never thought it’d be so simple.” He talks of having seven daughters, and asks “don’t let me die in the hospital” he even earmarks a plan to later in life “insert here: a sentiment RE: our golden years” and notes how it’s all because he went to the store one day and said “I’ve seen you around, what’s your name?” It’s as personal a recollection as has ever been put to record, and it’s beautiful, it’s honest and it’s true. What more could anyone want from a love song? What more could anyone want from a record? Father John Misty love’s his honeybear, and the world might very soon love Father John Misty.
I Love You Honeybear is out now on Bella Union (UK/EU) & Sub Pop (US). Father John Misty is on tour in the UK from the 20th of February, and returns to London in October – tickets are on sale now.