My first exposure to this record was hearing “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” on the radio in the car, sometime last summer. My immediate reaction was to exclaim “what the fuck is this shit?!”, so affronted was I by its easy-listening, 70s AM radio instrumentation and faintly creepy lyrics about pulling up someone’s wedding dress.
By the autumn, though, it was clear that the album it came from was going to garner oodles of end-of-year plaudits, and critical and friendly voices I trust were, by and large, singing its praises; some of them vehemently so. Emma and I were intrigued, so we bought a copy. First couple of listens; meh. 70s country-soft-rock with glittery shoulder pads, exactly the kind of retro bollocks I hate. But at some point we started playing it a lot, especially in the car, and it all began to fall in to place…
Josh Tillman, which is who Father John Misty is, was the drummer in Fleet Foxes for a while, and then recorded solo under the name J. Tillman. He released a handful of albums of self-consciously obscure and sincere singer-songwriter stuff, in the mould of Dennis Wilson or Nick Drake; ie. he deliberately wanted to be the kind of singer-songwriter who people only ‘get’ after they’re dead. Then one day it seems he had an epiphany of sorts on stage, when he realised that people were responding more to his between-song banter and shit-talk than to his songs.
The result of this epiphany? A new nom-de-plume and a new approach to being a musician, which both acknowledges and lampoons the methods and traditions of the singer-songwriter and the relationship between them and the audience, and, most importantly, them and their material. Some have described it as ironic distance, but for me it actually feels more honest; if this were theatre rather than music I’d say he was indirectly breaking the fourth wall. More on this later.
Anyway, despite initial misgivings, I now think I Love You, Honeybear is an amazing record, a document of the start of a relationship so honest, so warts-and-all, and so multi-faceted that I want to take it and rewrite the lyrics slightly so that it fits the early days of my own relationship, such is the emotional pull it has on me (aided, no doubt, by the fact that the object of the affections detailed has the same name as my wife). It makes me remember the heady, tumultuous, passionate times before mortgages and toddlers entered our lives, and it does it by being funny, caustic, cynical, weary, plaintive, self-aware, and so honest that it hurts.
The songs by and large eschew verse-chorus-verse structures, and instead move in a more creative fashion most of the time; which makes perfect sense, because both individually and as a whole they tell a story, albeit not entirely linearly; we start not quite at the beginning, and the very last words wind us back to a reminiscence of a first meeting. Occasionally there are refrains, but they tend to be melodic or instrumental; the lyrics seldom repeat, and the song structures are complex and rewarding, meaning that the album creeps up on you until its etched reams of itself into your cerebellum. Even the instrumentation, which made me shudder on first contact, is fabulous; more musicological minds than mine have described the songwriting and playing with awe.
Something which put me off I Love You, Honeybear initially was the overall presentation; the album title is horrible, the artwork is foul, the song titles make you wince (“When You’re Smiling And Astride Me”, eurgh). This is obviously deliberate; his albums as J. Tillman featured moody, black & white portraits of himself on the covers and song titles like “With Wolves”, “Visions Of A Troubled Mind”, and “Ribbons Of Glass”; in short they were boring, clichéd shit done a million times before by serious men in dark clothes with rhyming dictionaries and acoustic guitars. His new approach acknowledges the ridiculousness of being a musician, of the relationship between the singer and the songwriter and the singer and the audience. You could read it as disrespecting his audience, or you could read it as talking to them as intelligent people who can understand complexity. I favour the latter interpretation, obviously. The fact that he’s far more successful as Father John Misty than he ever was as J. Tillman suggests that people get it.
His Instagram feed furthers the approach by mocking the aesthetics of the role he assumes, but it also refers back to his songs. There’s a series of pictures of him in different locations – onstage performing; with Lana Del Rey in a very obviously posed and lit photoshoot; with groups of friends; standing in the middle of the road at night; behind the desk of The Late Show; in a livingroom full of colourful balloons; alone under a tree; with Thurston Moore’s arm around him – where, in every image, no matter who he’s with or what he’s doing, he’s glued to his smartphone, oblivious to what’s going on around him. The third song on I Love You, Honeybear is called “True Affection”, and is a very sincere appeal to talk “with the face” instead of through “all these strange devices”. The song is gorgeous and affecting; the photos juxtaposed with it are funny as hell.
One of the things that makes I Love You, Honeybear so rewarding is the shifting complexity of the emotional palette and lyrical perspective; it veers so often and so far in tone that unravelling the nuances is fascinating. There are straight-up jokes in the lyrics embedded alongside superficial nastiness and condescension, but there are also declarations of affection so deep and honest that they make my heart ache. Josh Tillman has been accused of misogyny, but the sentiments expressed are personal and specific, not generic, and balanced by self-deprecation and honesty. He’s listing things that bug him (and things that fascinate and bewitch him) about a single person, not an entire gender. And, frankly, the person he’s singing about seems to give as good as she gets, if not better.
There’s such attention to detail, such mundanity juxtaposed with such wonder, that it makes you wonder why more people don’t write lyrics like this; the conclusion is that they can’t. Often Tillman phrases things as if he was speaking directly to you, or writing for his own private need, rather than singing a song. Other lyricists sometimes seem to be trying to create new clichés, but he delves into specifics and similes in a way that completely eschews this. He’s not creating a new world, or abstracting this one; he’s chatting shit, being honest, making jokes to mask uncomfortable emotional truths, acknowledging the emotional barriers we put up. It goes beyond confession or candour into the often uncomfortable, complex, and sometimes irrational reality of actual human emotions, and it feels all the more affecting for it. He’s an asshole and a nice guy too, often at the same time, like most of us probably are.
The lyrics are so great, and so integral to my enjoyment of this record, that I thought about including loads of them here as examples. But, amazing as they are, they are lyrics still and not poetry, and removing them from the context of their musical accompaniment and vocal delivery shears them of a huge amount of their impact.
And what vocal delivery; I’m hesitant to talk about the nuance of this record again, but Tillman moves from a croon to a holler to a whisper so well, often in the same song; compare the engorged climax of “The Ideal Husband” to the lachrymose denouement of “I Went To The Store One Day”. It’s an amazing album to bellow along to as you drive; I nearly sang myself hoarse with it on repeat on a journey to Cornwall (which was silly, as I had to give a presentation when I got there).
And “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”, the song I was so repulsed by on first hearing? I think it’s a masterpiece, one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. I genuinely can’t get enough of it.
Rob listened: This has been a favourite-in-waiting ever since I heard ‘Bored In The USA’ for the first time back in 2014. I had the same experience as Nick in hearing ‘Chateau Lobby’ without knowing who it was by, but the opposite reaction, falling in love with it before the second verse was done. The album proper took some time for me to get to know. As with Nick, getting it lodged in the car was the breakthrough, perhaps appropriately. Misty has the feeling of someone who could throw his battered suit carrier in the trunk of his car and disappear at any moment.
I recognise everything that Nick is saying above, but I don’t think it’s quite as unique or remarkable. Don’t misunderstand me, I think it’s great, and refreshingly nuanced and provocative. But to me this is a pretty standard literary approach to writing. Misty certainly does have ironic distance and Tillman is undeniably adopting a character and using him to say one thing whilst meaning another. He’s very skillful, lacerating at his best, and yes, he stands out because of the deftness with which he slips his stiletto between the ribs, seeking the heart. I think that’s less because he’s a genius (he’s not, he’s just very good) and more because we are used to most songwriters trying far less.
Tom listened: For some reason, I can’t help but compare Josh Tillman to John Grant…and, unfortunately, I have a problem with this association. My first exposure to John Grant was his Pale Green Ghosts album and I thoroughly enjoyed it initially. However, as I got to know it better I increasingly felt repulsed by it; the knowingness, bordering on smugness, of the lyrics had such a negative effect on me that I began to see that trait throughout the record – in the production values, the songwriting, the arrangements – to such an extent that I literally haven’t felt compelled to listen to it in years and I doubt I will again…at least, until Rob decides to bring it to record club! The odd thing is that 6music has recently had quite a lot of John Grant in spoken form (in interview or DJing shows) and I find him thoroughly likeable, engaging and modest!
Well…Father John Misty elicits the same feelings in me – he seems just too clever by half! I can admire the musicianship, some of the songs sounded truly beautiful, but I can’t shake the impression that every move is so deliberate, so considered that the soul has been all but sucked out of the music. Of course, I could just be experiencing what Nick felt when he first listened to the record and perhaps repeated exposure would reveal a compelling and addictive commentary on the human condition but I doubt whether I will stick around long enough to find out.