By Sebastian Buzzalino
Sub Pop Records
It’s not the easiest task to create an album that sounds American without being relentlessly steeped in Americana as a shorthand for a larger cautious optimism. But Joshua Tillman’s second release as Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear, belongs on a shortlist of Great American Albums of the Early 21st Century, a concise, well-focused concept album that sounds nostalgic for a recent past while still belonging in 2015, a product of a rapidly disappearing sense of accessibility in the USA.
This isn’t maximalist, escapist glitz-pop manufactured in New York or LA, but a travelling, roaming, wandering confessional spoken on the streets of Anytown, USA: Tillman shifts on Honeybear, alone, pained and restless, Gram Parsons’ spectre always looming over his shoulder. This is the most honest he’s ever been on record as he flays himself open on the gentle gospel flow of “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” or on the swooning dive bar lament, “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow.” Tillman positions himself as an everyman with common concerns: you get the sense that he’s just another disenfranchised sap trying to make his way in a landscape that becomes increasingly more inscrutable as familiar landscapes are lost to larger machinations. He’s bored with the land of promise and this boredom gives way to a dark, cynical romanticism apropos of solitary artists — recalling literary influences, like Kurt Vonnegut — that becomes the dominant aesthetic of Honeybear.
Couched in lush, Harry Nilsson-inspired neo-psychedelia and the fervent gospel healing of his youth, the political nature of Honeybear is mobilized through Tillman’s chief concerns on the album: the sensuality of fear and the sheer terror of falling in love and holding yourself within and without. The personal is deeply political on Honeybear and Tillman works through his devotion to his wife and muse as a metaphor for our sense of self and place in an imagined nation. “I can hardly believe I found you/And I’m terrified by that,” he croons on “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” desperately hoping that his honesty will allow him to evolve as a man and strengthen his relationship, despite his self-destructive tendencies.
As he explains on the letter anticipating the album, Tillman moves between “the belief that the best love can be is finding someone who is miserable in the same way you are, and the end point being that love isn’t for anyone who isn’t interested in finding a companion to undertake total transformation with,” often unsure of which approach will release him to fully accept himself and his muse, Emma. This movement creates much of the narrative tension on Honeybear, propelling the album forward with ironic confidence and coy narcissism. It’s a continuation of the melancholic romanticism he explored on 2012’s Fear Fun, though Tillman sounds more isolated and pained on Honeybear. In a more general sense, Tillman seems to be working through larger approaches to optimism, swinging between the wide-eyed innocence of idealism and the nihilistic crush of realizing that perhaps one person isn’t enough to affect change.
The album’s centrepiece is undoubtedly “Bored in the USA,” an obvious reworking of Springsteen’s political anthem and the most prescient example of the masterful interplay between memoir and metaphor Tillman has achieved on Honeybear. It’s a hapless, piano-driven ballad, softened with sighing strings, as he repeats the defeated chorus, “I’m just a little bored in the USA,” before confessing that he “can’t get off, but can kinda deal.” The lines are blurred and it’s hard to not get caught up in the moment and let Tillman speak for you, his charming terror of intimacy enveloping the track. But when he manages to extract himself from a larger context of expectations and perhaps simplify things, there’s hope: “Holy Shit” is a blinding ray of sunshine as he breaks and realizes, “Making love is just an economy/based on resource scarcity/what I fail to see/is what that has to do with you and me,” and, in spite of himself, he trusts that he can find meaning in his relationship.
I Love You Honeybear is an ambitious and self-indulgent effort, one that draws a direct line to the great works of American songwriting in the ‘70s, and damn if Tillman doesn’t absolutely nail it. I Love You Honeybear is a heartbreaking work of art.Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear