Boy sees girl in a parking lot. Boy falls in love with girl and says, “I’ve seen you around. What’s your name?” Girl falls in love with boy. They begin to spend every day together, getting high and making love. They’re finding themselves in each other; their intimacy is becoming all there is to the universe.
It’s a classic story of falling in love. But the boy isn’t an ordinary boy — he’s Josh Tillman, self-proclaimed “sarcastic overcompensating asshole,” as he put it in an interview with Grantland. We see a profoundly changed Josh Tillman on this sophomore album, “I Love You, Honeybear.” Before meeting Emma —his “honeybear” — he was afraid of feeling normal (feelings), deflecting sympathy and sentimentality with irony. That’s the Tillman of “Fear Fun,” his first album as Father John Misty, an erudite, gregarious gadfly — he’s casually name-dropping Heidegger and Sartre, and singing about “writing a novel because it’s never been done before.”
In “I Love You, Honeybear” we see Tillman trying to reflect sincerely on his music and his emotions, trying to come to terms with the ways falling in love with Emma are changing him. His lyrics can teeter on the brink of the cliche — we hear “honeybear,” “tired of running” and “I love you as you are.” But Tillman is aware that he isn’t good at that yet, that his lyricism is trite at times. He refers to his own line about running as “something dumb.”
In his best and most original lyrical moments, he’s his old sardonic self, going for a shocker, like with the track “ Chateau Lobby #4.” Here, Tillman really reminded me of Philip Roth, the libidinous bad boy of contemporary literature. In fact, Tillman references Roth’s novel “Everyman” on “Fear Fun”; there’s a song called “Everyman Needs a Companion.” Tillman owns a “heap of vinyl outstacked only by his Philip Roth novels,” Sean Fennessey notes in his article and interview for Grantland.
Tillman is clearly not afraid to flaunt his bookish side. I understand how that might be irksome or come off as pretentious. But it does give us a window into his psyche. We’ve all had the experience of reading and recognizing the perfect expression for something difficult to put into words. Maybe precisely those moments — where an emotion is so personal that our vocabulary fails us — say the most about us. There, Tillman might feel the need to throw in an allusion or two. In any case, what I’m arguing is that you can let the references inform your reading of his lines and get a good grasp on what this album’s all about.
Besides Roth, Tillman references Shakespeare: “A rose by any other name,” he croons in “Holy Shit.” He’s alluding to the famous balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet,” where Juliet says: “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” This song is about everything Tillman thinks love is not. Here, he’s anxious about saying “love,” because the word is so overused that it has become meaningless. Instead, he quotes some definition of love he’s heard — “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity”— and negates it: “What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me.” The Shakespeare reference is exactly about those indescribable qualities of love. Tillman and the Bard tell us that it doesn’t matter how you define what love is or isn’t, because “By any other name,” it “would smell as sweet.”
“The Ideal Husband,” combines the timeless anxieties about love and relationships we see in literature with the particular anxieties of millennials. The title refers to Oscar Wilde’s play “An Ideal Husband.” Both that play and this song deal with hypocrisy, past sins and forgiveness. But Tillman gives those themes a modern twist. He’s anxious about privacy and getting found out: “Julian / He’s gonna take my files,” Tillman sings, a reference Julian Assange, priest of digital penance and absolution. But “now / Now it’s out,” and Tillman’s “finally succumbing.” He seeks forgiveness and ends ironically: “Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?”
More 21st-century angst ensues in “True Affection.” It’s a song about isolation. “I wrote it on tour while trying to woo someone with text message and email and trying to make a connection that way and the frustration of that. So that song had to be synthetic and inorganic,” Tillman told Grantland. As far as I know, it’s the first electronic song on a folk-rock album. It’s something of a genre-bender. The song is also a reflection on electronic music itself. Can it really convey true affection? I think Tillman would wholeheartedly say yes, and I’m with him, but it’s not the musical form that singer-songwriters typically choose.
In “I Love You, Honeybear” Tillman shows himself totally capable of writing beautiful songs. That’s partly due to Emma, partly due to the Fleet Foxes (he was the drummer for a while). He said she could sense that he wasn’t fully committing. “She told me that I needed to not be afraid to let the songs be beautiful,” instead of cloaking them in a “giant, deranged, impenetrable Disney-orchestra arrangement,” Tillman told Fennessey. There’s still some of that LSD-era Beatles stuff on “Holy Shit” and “I Love You, Honeybear.” But there’s also “I Went to the Store One Day,” with simple chords on an acoustic guitar and fluttering falsetto “oohs.”
Even there, he can’t help but be self-aware. One line from that song is “Insert here, a sentiment regarding golden years.” You see him stepping out there. In Grantland’s interview he recalls that line, thinking: “Am I seriously writing a love song? That awareness, I think, is a big part of what I do that helps me live with myself as an artist and as a human being.”
When you’re only looking at the lyrics, Tillman risks not sounding genuine or authentic. But his music is really convincing. “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” is a song about being on the road and being jealous, and the vibe you get totally fits that. It’s like a classic blues or folk ballad. It actually invokes metaphors about trains and there’s an epic 50s-style electric guitar near the end. I can only think of a classic scene: Tillman sitting there, a lonely dude at the bar, strung out and shot down behind his bourbon.
The only real criticism I have is that he’s sometimes trying to say too much. The metrical somersaults he forces himself to make on songs like “I Love You, Honeybear” can detract from his flow and delivery. There, instead of skillfully toeing the line between Father John Misty as a sardonic nomad — as on “Fear Fun” — and the passionate, committed lover he proves himself to be on this record, he goes right over and loses me. That said, this is a brilliant album that may indicate the potential for folk rock’s development in the coming years.