Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear review – beautiful songs of unclear meaning

It’s hard to tell where Joshua Tillman ends and his alias Father John Misty begins – but perhaps it doesn’t matter when the songs sound this good

A strange thing happens three quarters of the way through Bored in the USA, the first single from former Fleet Foxes drummer Joshua Tillman’s new album under his Father John Misty alias. The song begins life as a downbeat piano ballad. The lyrics find Tillman in the midst of the kind of existential crisis that has plagued confessional singer-songwriters for decades, gloomily ruminating on the mindlessness of modern-day life, the pointless acquisition of objects and the multifarious ways in which the daily reality of a relationship fails to live up to an idealised notion of love: “I’ve got a lifetime to consider all the ways I grow more disappointing to you as beauty warps and fades, and I suspect you feel the same.” It works in the way ballads by confessional singer-songwriters usually work: the tune reels the listener in, anyone similarly mired in gloom and confusion nods along to the words, seeing themselves reflected. But then, just after the first chorus, a canned-laughter track appears: every time Tillman enumerates one of latterday America’s problems – the sub-prime mortgage crisis, an over-reliance on prescription drugs, the failure of the education system – the virtual audience bust a gut.

Perhaps understandably, reviews of the single reflected a degree of uncertainty as to what this all meant. Depending on who you listened to, the song was either a searing satire of white male privilege, a painfully honest account of the mundane problems that beset people’s lives, or a number drawn from the bulging file of unlovely songs in which rock stars loftily mock ordinary people for having to worry about things like mortgages. Bored in the USA could quite conceivably be any of those things: at the risk of sounding like someone hedging their bets, you do get the feeling that kind of uncertainty is precisely the response Tillman is after.

For a rock or pop artist, adopting a persona is a famously risky business. It seems to create an unmanageable degree of confusion, usually among the audience, as when the online indignation machine cranked into life over the disparity between the singer Lizzy Grant and the character Lana del Rey, but sometimes in the artist themselves. Pretending to be someone you’re not for extended amounts of time causes the line between fiction and reality to blur, with varying results. There are the preposterous cases – here let us consider both Bryan Ferry, who seems to have spent the last few decades actually being the kind of ennui-laden posho his songs once expertly parodied; and the frontman of Swedish metallers Abruptum, a man called Tony who insisted on being referred to as “It” because he was “too evil to be human”. But others are actively troubling, as it was with the baleful figure of David Bowie in the mid-70s. But whatever the warnings from history, Tillman appears to spend I Love You, Honeybear wilfully reveling in the confusion between himself and Father John Misty, the character he unveiled on 2012’s Fear Fun.

That album depicted Misty as an amoral, drunk and drugged-out lothario adrift in a Ralph Steadman cartoon of LA. I Love You, Honeybear, by contrast, is billed as “a concept album about Josh Tillman”, on which heartfelt paeans to true love, inspired by Tillman’s recent marriage – “I can hardly believe I found you and I’m terrified by that,” he sings on When You’re Smiling and Astride Me – jostle for space with songs apparently written in character, including The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt., a savage evisceration of an “insufferable” female acquaintance. The latter is packed with extremely funny lines – “She says, ‘like literally’ music is the air she breathes … I wonder if she even knows what that word means – well it’s ‘literally’ not that” – but so unremittingly cruel and unpleasant in tone that it’s genuinely hard to listen to. Sometimes he seems to shift from character to reality mid-song. At others, it’s entirely unclear who’s talking, or whether the listener is supposed to take the litany of misdeeds in The Ideal Husband as the kind of agonisingly personal admission at which John Grant excels, or something more knowing and arch. “When can we talk with a face, instead of using all these strange devices?” asks True Affection; well, quite.

This is all hugely entertaining. There are moments when, if you’re listening closely, the constant lyrical shifts from caustic irony to plaintive declarations of love can really knock you for six, not least on the title track. It’s all fertile material for rock critics and amateur psychologists to pick apart. But oddly, it’s not central to the album’s success. From the chaotic bombast of the title track and The Ideal Husband to the spluttering synthpop on True Affection, all these songs would sound fantastic even if the lyrics bored you stiff. Tillman’s writing stirs together a lot of influences currently hip with a certain kind of US singer-songwriter: you can hear traces of John Lennon’s once-reviled mid-70s albums; Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman haunt the vaguely showtune-like Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow; while the aforementioned chaotic bombast is audibly inspired by Phil Spector’s production on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. But the artist I Love You, Honeybear most clearly recalls is early-70s Elton John. You can hear him in the way Tillman phrases his vocals, but mostly it’s in his melodies, which frequently sound like they’ve walked straight off Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Honky Chateau: it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture When You’re Smiling and Astride Me or Holy Shit being delivered from somewhere between an enormous pair of light-up glasses and an outfit largely comprised of sequins and marabou feathers.

However complex and torturous the thinking behind the lyrics gets, there’s an effortless ease about the tunes that bear them. It’s easy to stop worrying about who’s supposed to be talking to you, what they mean and indeed whether they mean it or not when Holy Shit glides to its delirious climax, or indeed when the chorus of Bored in the USA arrives, short-circuiting the soaring strings with a doleful, resigned shrug. For all the layers of irony on I Love You, Honeybear, the biggest irony of all might be that such an ostensibly knotty and confusing album’s real strength lies in something as prosaic and transparent as its author’s ability to write a beautiful melody – whoever he is.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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