fjm_crew_hballover_menRecently while hanging out with some friends, one of our laptops was being passed around as a few of us were selecting favorite Youtube music videos to share. A few days prior, I had watched Father John Misty’s excellent Take Away Show performance of “I Went To The Store One Day” (below) and it was the first video that came to mind when I thought of what to share. After a few minutes of further thought though, I ultimately decided not to show it. Something about sharing it in this setting didn’t feel right. It was too awkward and vulnerable a performance for the friendly setting we were in.

Most of Josh Tillman’s music as Father John Misty tends to feel a lot like this–something that can be beautiful and endearing, painfully vulnerable and honest, or offensive and off-putting, frequently, all in the same song. His music is hard to share without giving caveats about context or explaining who and what Father John Misty is and represents.

So here goes: Josh Tillman’s been through a number of moniker or career transformations over the last ten years. First as somber Seattle folk artist J. Tillman releasing multiple albums of hushed minimal folk; then as drummer and background vocalist in the indie folk rock band Fleet Foxes; and most recently, as the psilocybin-fueled moniker Father John Misty who appeared in 2012 with the release of the album, Fear Fun. The authenticity of this latest incarnation initially sounded questionable, especially considering the vast difference between the sedate vibe of J. Tillman and the drugged-out vision-quest backstory of Father John Misty. But what might seem at first like an escapist façade, turns out to be anything but. Tillman appears to have found something in the FJM moniker that has allowed him to unmask his true self. In fact, his new album I Love You, Honeybear finds Tillman being truly genuine for what might be the first time, grappling with expressing (and receiving) sincere love with his new wife, Emma.

I Love You, Honeybear is full of the grandiose orchestral Hollywood pop-rock that Tillman’s spiritual forebears like George Harrison and Harry Nilsson purported during their early 70s heyday. The opening title track sets the tone with open-strummed acoustic guitars, sweeping orchestral flourishes, and Tillman’s commanding showman presence. Honeybear is lush, sticky music that, as Tillman’s wife Emma encouraged, “shouldn’t be afraid to be beautiful.” A gleeful Mariachi band escorts out “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” while “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”’s soulful swing is accompanied by a choir of Phil Spector-esque harmonious “whoa”s and “ooh”s. “True Affection” is the only stylistic anomaly, which scraps the orchestral pop-rock and instead apes Age Of Adz-era Sufjan electronic flourishes.

Most of the conversation around Father John Misty’s music though tends to focus on Tillman himself, as he remains front and center throughout, the only factor threatening the charm of the music behind him. He has a vocally commanding presence with a chest-full tenor croon similar to former Fleet Foxes bandmate Robin Pecknold or My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. But it’s Tillman’s frank and plainspoken lyrical style, which can come across, initially, as awkward and even alienating, that commands the most attention. This style abets an emotional and unfettered honesty (occasionally cloaked in sarcasm or irony) that makes listening to Father John Misty feel akin to having a candid conversation with Tillman after one too many at the bar on the corner.

In a feature for Grantland earlier this month, Sean Fennessey spoke with Tillman about his Father John Misty “conversion” experience which shines light on the Misty character’s style:

“In a story he has told often, Tillman got into a van and just started driving south. He soon found himself sitting naked in a tree in Big Sur, scratching his head like an ape. Suddenly, a figurative interrobang appeared over his head. He was on mushrooms at the time, deep into a psychedelics phase. He was in that tree on a vision quest when the “cosmic joke” landed: Just be me, he recalls realizing. The real me. The sarcastic, overcompensating asshole. That’s the bigger-than-life character — being a tortured artist is meaningless. “It just never occurred to me to write like myself,” he says. “It was almost like that scene in Network where Howard Beale is lying in bed and is like ‘What? OK!’ And I ran out and did it.””

The “sarcastic, overcompensating asshole” Tillman gladly shows up to many songs on Honeybear. “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” alternates between a somewhat flirtatious and drunken interaction with a “blondie” and Tillman threatening to fight a man who is flirting with his wife at the same bar when he’s out of town. “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt” is even bolder, with Tillman railing through three verses about “the few main things” he hates about a girl who, by song’s end, he ends up sleeping with. Tillman tends to stray away from diluents or chasers, preferring to convey each song’s emotional weight neat.

Through multiple listens though, each of these songs slowly shed their layers of irony and cynicism to reveal the raw vulnerable Tillman at the core. In the middle of “The Night Josh Tillman…” he offers a brief confession of his lustful motivations in the form of “Oh my God, I swear this never happens/Lately I can’t stop the wheels from spinning/I feel so unconvincing/When I fumble with your buttons”. This is best exemplified on “The Ideal Husband” where Tillman spends the majority of the song confessing all the reasons he isn’t the ideal husband (“Didn’t call when grandma died/Spent my folk-bucks getting drunk and high”) before ironically exclaiming at song’s end “And now it’s out/I came by at seven in the morning/Said, “Baby, I’m finally succumbing!”/Said something dumb like/”I’m tired of running”/Let’s put a baby in the oven/Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?”

On his debut album, Fear Fun, the sarcastic side of Father John Misty took center stage. That album had irony carrying the lyrical weight of most songs. With Honeybear though, we see the “sarcastic, overcompensating asshole” Tillman begin to struggle with expressing himself in a much more sincere hue. The difference between Fear Fun’s satire and Honeybear’s shake at genuineness, according to Tillman, was meeting and falling in love with his now wife, Emma, after the release of Fear Fun.

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Tillman spoke about finding love:

“It’s like an antibody to narcissism and self-oblivion and not knowing yourself,” he says. “It relentlessly forces you to ask: ‘Why does this person love me? What is it about me that makes this person want to spend their life with me?’ And ideally, you start to see yourself through the eyes of this person instead of your own highly distorted perception of yourself.”

Tillman spends a lot of Honeybear grappling with this sort of being known and loved. “True Affection” contains Tillman’s most straightforward appeal to Emma, asking to meet face to face “instead of using all these strange devices” (Tillman being Tillman though, he winkingly buries these lyrics in the most synthetic sounding song on the album). Even more telling is “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” which features Tillman’s most honest and endearing lyrics to date. The song ends with Tillman’s summation of his and Emma’s relationship: “You see me as I am, it’s true/The aimless, fake drifter and the horny, man-child, Mamma’s boy to boot/That’s how you live free/To truly see and be seen.”

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In the aforementioned Take Away Show video for “I Went To The Store One Day”, Tillman performs a stripped-down rendition of the final song on Honeybear which tells the story of Tillman and Emma meeting for the first time. It’s one of the most heartfelt and beautiful songs on the album and the serene, candlelit Paris cafe he performs in captures an acute intimacy. Tillman’s confessional style excels in this setting. But what’s most endearing about the whole video is Emma, who, initially out of focus in the background, comes into focus as the camera pans to her at song’s end. No words are exchanged, just a deliberate and affectionate smile comes across her face directed at Tillman. While sentimental, it feels unrehearsed and genuine, a moment of loving adoration.

Last year’s lead single “Bored In The USA” was a biting critique of American privilege similar to Fear Fun’s satire of Hollywood extravagance and suggested that with I Love You, Honeybear we might be in for more of the same. What we got though was an album that explores love in the only way Tillman knows how: sarcastic and genuine, beautiful and off-putting, awkward and endearing, all at the same time. From the same Pitchfork interview above, he mentions, “…that’s the human condition. It’s impossible to talk about without saying everything at once.” Tillman may have set out from Seattle years ago to find his true self, fueled by drugs and excess. With I Love You, Honeybear though, Tillman shows that true freedom is found in the unconditional and fully known love given by another, yes, even to “sarcastic, overcompensating asshole[s]”.