This album has probably had greater control over my facial muscles than any other I’ve listened to in recent memory. No sooner do I hear the opening refrains of the titular track fanfaring “Honeybear, Honeybear, Honeybear, ooo-ooh!” with all the triumph of a candy-coated celestial herald, than my cheeks raise against my will, and I find myself smiling as broadly as a sunbeam. With an album cover that appears to the depict The Nativity as re-imagined by a psychedelicized Hieronymus Bosch, ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ is the victorious outcome of getting gloriously fucked up and somehow finding Love, God, and The Meaning of Existence in the process.
With a semi-mythical history fuelled by excessive psilocybin consumption and Ayahuasca illumination, this is the second release by the polymorphic artist Josh Tillman under the alias Father John Misty – a character name that makes all the more sense on learning that Tillman’s first aspiration in life was to be a pastor, as it was the closest thing to being a performance artist in the sequestered, Christian culture in which he was raised. And I suppose, on reflection, in some respects he has been successful: the strength of his personality and the conviction of his surreal experiences is so captivating and engaging that the album could readily be interpreted as a musical version of The Book of Revelations, only with all of the horsemen and apocalyptic trumpeters replaced by the lone vision of a man celebrating and coming to terms with something far more terrifying and profound than any apocalypse: Love.
And what a revelation it is! The first word that came to mind whilst listening to the album was ‘charm’. But with each repeated listen that impression deliquesced as I found the songs and voice of Father John – my preacher of choice, any day – speaking to me on levels I had not previously expected. The more I listened to and researched the man, the more I felt him to be a kindred spirit; an enigmatic, cartoon of man cloaked in a dense stratum of alternate personalities, each one an act of prestidigitation, intermingling naked sincerity with comedic red herrings for the sake of his personal security. I even felt that we bore a superficial resemblance to eachother, though I’ll be the first to admit that his beard is both fuller and better than my own, beating my own in terms of both size and presumed food storage capacity. “I’m so afraid of being misunderstood that I don’t give people a chance to understand me in the first place,” he confessed in a recent interview.
But in ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ we are given a wider view inside the heart of this man than hitherto fore. A concept album about marriage, the record is an auditory photo album narrating the stages of unfolding intimacy and sincerity in his relationship to filmmaker Emma Tillman, to whom he has been married since 2013. “I see marriage as a form of creative expression,” he said, and creative expression is certainly the word, as each song is dripping with oozing, treacly walls of it. Every song is a polished gem – all pearls snatched fresh from the gaping oyster maw of inspiration, fished from the ocean of dreams.
One thing that can’t fail to assail you is just how hilarious this album is. Every line and lyric is crammed with as much wit as it can contain, and even songs as sensitive as ‘When You’re Smiling and Astride Me’ can have you liquefying with emotion one moment and then laughing the next. ‘The Night John Tillman Came To Our Apt’ is my personal favourite where yucks are concerned. With the opening line “I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man/I mean like a god-damned marching band,” it satirizes the pitfalls of dating a pretentious yuppie whom he is only too happy to strangle within the confines of erotic asphyxiation by the end of the song. Humour is always a risk in music. Overdo it, and you risk becoming a gimmick or a comedy act. But Tillman’s grace and masterly execution means that he can use a line like “I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your dress someone was probably murdered in” in the infinitely catchy ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’, and still conjure up the excitement of a young couple in love sharing themselves for the first time in such a uniquely intimate way that all previous sexual experiences are obliterated by its majesty. The same goes for ‘Bored in the USA,’ a gorgeous piano ballad concerning the apathy of America’s consumerist society that is no less touching for its uproarious pleas of “Save me white Jesus!” – or the slick, string-soaked marinade of ‘Strange Encounter’ in which Tillman deals with the emotional inconvenience of having a half dead woman in his bath tub.
But what really makes the album – besides the faultless songmanship and its mellifluous dementia – is the arrangements. Oh, I quiver in the face (or ear) of such arrangements! Perfected, pristine, prismatic arrangements that have all the delicate exactitude of a Feng Shui bedroom or Japanese rock garden, as with so much else on the album, Tillman seems to have found the perfect Goldilocks’ Zone of Production, nothing excessive or deficient – only the choicest Country-tinged psychedelia of steel guitars, blissful backing vocals, unexpected electronics, and Mariachi trumpets on this recording.
By far my favourite track, the closing song ‘I Went To The Store One Day’ documents Tillman meeting his wife for the first time in the parking lot of the Laurel Canyon Country Store in Big Sur, and envisages a future in which they’ll live together on an overgrown plantation, flea-bitten by their seven daughters, and die in eachother’s arms making love; this paradisial fantasy all made possible simply because he ‘went to the store one day’. It is a completely naked song of gratitude and wonder, and every time I listen to it, it fills me with the same gratitude and wonder at all the bizarre contingencies that led love softly and surprisingly into my own life as well.
I found it difficult and humbling to review an album that has touched me as personally as this one; and I only hope that, with time, it will acquire the ‘classic’ status that I feel it so rightfully deserves.
I love you ‘I Love You, Honeybear’.
Don’t ever change.