A trip on psilocybin mushrooms in the trees of Big Sur was the inspiration for the 2012 album “Fear Fun” from Father John Misty, a.k.a Josh Tillman.
Tillman was frustrated by his lack of success as a singer-songwriter writing delicate and morose songs and ventured into Big Sur looking for direction. He emerged as the persona Father John Misty, a shamanistic crooner full of swagger who reveled in debauchery of which he was acutely self-aware.
With the release this week of his sophomore album, “I Love You, Honeybear,” Tillman has given up the drugs for love. “Honeybear” explores the complexities of falling hopelessly in love with someone, inspired by his relationship with wife Emma, who he married in late 2013. His sardonic nature and cutting wit are on display throughout the album, but there is a noticeable shift that reveals a more straightforward and intimate person who was absent on “Fear Fun”
The album opens with the swirling croon of title track “I Love You, Honeybear.” Sultry and whimsical, Tillman proclaims his steadfast love for his wife while the rest of the world crumbles around them. He sings, “Everything is doomed, and nothing will be spared/ Oh, I love you, Honeybear.” He is confident in their love but also deflects intimacy with his tongue-in-cheek use of Honeybear as a pet name. However, in second track “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” intimacy is celebrated in a sunny, bouncy rhythm in which Tillman reveals, “I’ve never done this/ Baby, be gentle/ It’s my first time.” It is a warm track that feels like a summer breeze blowing through a villa in Mexico. A real-life display of their affection for one another, the song’s music video was directed and filmed by Tillman and his wife on their wedding anniversary and features scenes of the couple lounging in a hotel and swimming in the pool filtered through a kaleidoscopic lens.
Sometimes Tillman can be a little too clever for his own good, and “Bored In The USA” finds the singer satirically musing over the insignificance of American culture, complete with a schmaltzy lounge-singer vibe and canned laughter. The song’s antics cheapen the product and it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album.
Along with a change in outlook on “Honeybear,” the album also presents a change in sound from its predecessor that is more cinematic and luxurious. Orchestral strings are used liberally and compositions like “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” sounds like it could have been plucked from the soundtrack of a Hollywood musical set in the ’40s. Jonathan Wilson, who also produced “Fear Fun,” continues to add brightness and complexity to Tillman’s Laurel Canyon meadow-soul sound and “Honeybear’s” texture pairs seamlessly with the grandeur of newfound love.
The album is at its best when Tillman is most vulnerable and direct with his emotions. On the anthemic “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” Tillman sings, “When you’re smiling and astride me/ I can hardly believe I’ve found you and I am terrified by that.” His tenderness is further revealed in album closer: “I Went To The Store One Day,” in which Tillman recounts the day he met his wife and his visions of their future together, while accompanied only by a string section and his guitar. Both songs are free of any attempts to be ironic and the compassion he has for his wife is evident.
“I Love You, Honeybear,” is a swirl of complex emotions that are presented with lush compositions. It shows growth and ambition for Father John Misty’s sound while remaining consistent in quality. It is a thoroughly enjoyable listen and each repeated listen becomes a more intimate affair.
Father John Misty
‘I Love You, Honeybear’
Sub Pop Records, Feb. 10, 2015
Notable Tracks: “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C For Two Virgins),” “I Went To The Store One Day”