There’s a longstanding tradition of blues-based guitar music about love: Its themes have been transposed to American pop music with uncomfortable regularity, so much so that the topic has become inextricably tawdry and hopelessly cliché. And still, such generalizations do absolutely nothing to prevent Father John Misty from releasing an entire album about love, in all its sublime and painful complexities. He’s admirably frank about his fantastical, polyamorous relationship with Emma Elizabeth Tillman (who played the dominatrix in the video for “Nancy From Now On”), and it makes for a powerful record, dense with the tribulations and triumphs of unguarded human emotion.
I Love You, Honeybear is a confusing medley of infatuation and devastation, a thoroughly atypical construct of love. Its sentiments might seem gaudy and bizarro, at first, but that’s simply the product of songwriter J. Tillman’s lurid (like the title track’s “Mascara, blood, ash and cum on the Rorschach sheets where we make love”), audacious (“Let’s put a baby in the oven”), and sometimes racy (“Save me white Jesus”) lyrics. Traditional romantic conventions are quick to be inverted, complicated, or altogether parodied, extending the metaphor of love as something that’s incomprehensibly elaborate, wrought with both negative and positive implications. And he does it all with a strange, unceasing sense of humor (i.e. “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”‘s “I want to take you in the kitchen/ Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”).
The record’s first three tracks are sweeping, sensitive and emotionally debilitating. Tillman is courting you, more or less, donning his best features and laying out his most effective hooks. The opening title track is sappy without the sticky-sweet residue, and “Chateau Lobby #4” is forcible and swoon-worthy against Caribbean rhythms and Latin trumpet flares. But the third track “True Affection” is an inexplicable curveball, an effective “fuck you” to any and all persons wishing to keep his artistic impulses confined to craggy, albeit comforting, folk rock. It’s a salacious electronic groove, adorned with string accompaniment and a syncopated array of artificial bleeps and bloops, the likes of which are unseen anywhere else on the record.
“We both saw each other as a new conquest to beat back the tides of boredom, and then, I dunno,” said Tillman during an interview with Pitchfork last summer. “She really took me by surprise in a lot of ways.” It seems only appropriate that this off-kilter songwriter’s music would respond to newfound emotional developments with an equally unprecedented sound that’s harder, heavier and indubitably more weird than anything on 2012’s Fear Fun–first through the ethereal electro-pop of “True Affection” and then on the slow-churning, blue-eyed soul of “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me.” Tillman has to step outside himself, in third-person POV, to genuinely expose those hard-to-get-to ideas and modes of expression. And, although a touch alienating, it works (see, “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment”).
If I Love You, Honeybear‘s A-side is Tillman translating the dynamic range of euphoria that accompanies the initial infatuation of any relationship, then the B-side is its messy, self-confronting aftermath, where our lovably crazed narrator bares the most unflattering parts of his soul in hopes of some perverse sanctification. “I’ve done things unprotected/ Proceeded to drive home wasted,” he sings on “The Ideal Husband,” a vehement confessional of absurd proportions.
Tillman’s sophomore effort as Father John Misty takes roots, lingers after the first rotation; it’s very funny (“She blames her excess on my influence but gladly Hoovers all my drugs/ I found her naked with her best friend in the tub”), very sad (“I’ve become jealous, rail-thin, prone to paranoia when I’m stoned”), and kind of uplifting (“For love to find us of all people/ I never thought it’d be so simple”). It’s a bolder beast than his debut, the kind of record that you can’t help but love.