There was once a time when an artist could write a genuine love song, and everyone who heard it could reasonably believe that it was communicating some kind of sincere emotion. Soon, love songs became the pop music standard, and every teenage icon was singing about the superficiality of holding hands, looking in your eyes, and vague assertions of beauty. Now, love and music go together like cliches and love songs, and the challenge remains of how to write about such a powerful emotion in a new, personal, and truly emotive manner.
Based on the name alone, it may be difficult to imagine that any sort of genuine and not-cliched sentiment of love could possibly exist on Father John Misty’s second studio album, I Love You, Honeybear. That is, until you remember that Father John Misty is the pseudonym/altar-ego for J. Tillman, drummer of Fleet Foxes, and one of the most creative and daring songwriters in indie music. As it turns out, the album, a collection of 11 brutally honest tracks about Tillman’s relationship with his wife, Emma, is a self-effacing, beautifully disgusting, and bitterly genuine portrait of an imperfect man in love with an imperfect woman, making it nothing short of an emotional masterpiece.
The lyrics of I Love You, Honeybear are filled with self-doubt and conscious awareness of imperfections, capturing love in its most honest form: sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes just intoxicating. The seemingly innocent and affectionate statement of love in the album’s title is juxtaposed, in the first track, against a crippling cynicism for the world, (“Everything is doomed / and nothing will be spared / but I love you, honeybear”) and an acceptance of personal dread (“I’ve brought my mother’s depression / you’ve got your father’s scorn and a wayward aunt’s schizophrenia / but everything is fine”). Accompanied by a melancholy, yet celebratory romp of rhythm (like a more plodding version of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes’ “40 Day Dream”), the lyrics of “I Love You, Honeybear” are a poetic ode to the shared misanthropy of two lovers.
The album traces several events in the Tillmans’ relationship, from hermit-like infatuation (“People are boring / But you’re something else completely”), to the perception of difference (“Of the few main things I hate about her, one’s her petty, vague ideas”), to a marriage free of traditional norms or cliches (“Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty … What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me”). Using the aesthetic of a psychedelic singer-songwriter, like a Pink Floyd-influenced Jackson Browne with the edginess of Jim Morrison, Tillman bears his soul in its true colors on every single track.
The album’s most biting song, “The Ideal Husband,” reveals J. Tillman in all his doubts, fears, and imperfections. The song plays at Tillman’s desire to settle down with Emma, and perhaps even start a family, while simultaneously revealing the ways in which the happy cliches of that expectation occlude the moral fears of the individuals involved. Bombastic drums and a rising siren-like tone play behind two confessional verses, where Tillman lists the illicit things he’s done: “I spend my money getting drunk and high / I’ve done things unprotected / proceeded to drive home wasted.” This reaches a fever pitch in the last verse, as the rising tones reach their peak and the drums explode while Tillman screams in fear, “Let’s put a baby in the oven / Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?”
Of course not every song on the album focuses on Tillman’s relationship with Emma. “Bored In The USA,” for instance, is an incredibly subversive piano ballad that critiques the mindless nature of middle-class American life. But what makes I Love You, Honeybear incredible is Tillman’s consistent willingness to look into a brutally honest mirror, to deconstruct easy notions of love and self-assurance, to put his tattered self on full display, and then to turn that mirror around on us.
Featured Image Courtesy of Sub Pop Records