Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
On the latest BDWPS Podcast (check it out here), I took a look back at the music that defined the year 1972. One of the most popular genres at the time was the singer/songwriter movement. While Bob Dylan certainly “brought back” the folk movement in the early 60s, artists like Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Don McLean, Harry Chapin, and Jim Croce took this personal approach to songwriting and made it more palatable to the masses. Their songs were simple odes to the power of love and appreciation for the simpler things. These artists may have dominated the mainstream, but during that same time, a different vein of songwriters were releasing a strange mix of melodies and storytelling that didn’t fit within the cookie cutter constraints of the radio friendly folkies. Guys like Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and Harry Nilsson were creating innovative songs that strayed outside the norm. Sure, they still all had a knack for melody, but their lyrics were filled with cynicism, humor, and despair.
Father John Misty (real name J. Tillman) is a welcomed throw-back to this unconventional approach to songwriting. There are certainly a large of amount of singer/songwriters out there today creating songs that are weird and avant-garde, but the difference with Father John Misty is his voice. It’s soft and smooth like velvet. It’s rich and strong like mahogany. It’s magical and hypnotic like the northern lights. At times his voice reminds me of Nilsson, at other times it conjures up memories of Jeff Buckley. I shouldn’t be so shocked that a professional musician has such a phenomenal voice, but guys who sing about running down the road naked on hallucinogenic drugs aren’t supposed to sound this good.
Tillman hasn’t always had a penchant for the strange. His early work under his real name consists of pretty straight-forward, somber folk songs. But in 2012, Tillman must have experienced some sort of Shakabuku. (or as Debi in “Grosse Point Blank” describes it “A swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever”) because suddenly, without warning, he quit his job as drummer for one of the biggest bands in the world (Fleet Foxes) and packed up his van with supplies and mind-altering drugs. Along the way he met a French-Canadien shamen in southern Washington (who he did drugs with), and he took a pit stop at Big Sur where he disrobed and climbed a tree (and did more drugs). This nude tree climbing exploit is of course Tillman’s moment of Shakabuku. In an interview with SPIN he explained, “I can absolutely remember the moment. I was sitting in a tree scratching my head like an ape and I just started to laugh my ass off. I couldn’t take my pain seriously. Everything turned into innocence. I thought, ‘My version of honesty is valid.’ I know that ‘being yourself’ sounds like such a tired trope, but that’s what happened. I admitted to myself that I was good at being funny and writing songs, and that’s what I did. I saw that honesty looks a lot different than I thought it did. It took ten years of creative wheel-spinning to see that it was allowed to be fun.”
The result of this awakening was the first Father John Misty album Fear Fun, a mile-a-minute romp through his life changing road trip, one humorous quip after another. The results were both mirthful and overwhelming at times. His journey eventually led to the singer/songwriter promised land, Laurel Canyon, where the likes of Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, The Mamas and the Papas, Carole King, and The Eagles all once lived, side-by-side. While living there and recording Fear Fun, he met Emma Elizabeth, his now wife. She also happens to be the inspiration and lightning rod to his latest album I Love You, Honeybear. With love as his rudder, the chaotic spirit of Fear Fun has been steadied, and the result is a more focused, heart-felt album.
In the same way Fear Fun re-told the mind-altering escapade that led to his new moniker, I Love You, Honeybear catches the listener up on the narrative, focusing on his recent marriage. The one time self-loathing ladies man has now settled down learning to accept that, even when everything around you makes you bitter and cranky, love can wash it all away. As the album progresses, you see the one-time curmudgeon waving his white flag in the face of love. This realization is best seen on “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” when Tillman confesses, “You see me as I am, it’s true/ Aimless, fake drifter, and the horny man-child momma’s boy to boot.”
“When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”:
However, anyone fearing that Tillman has softened his humor-laden lyrics need not worry, although this time around the jokes have a little more bite. Don’t let that sensual vocals fool you – this is one cranky man, and this dichotomy between his sweet voice and bitter message makes the listening experience all the more enjoyable. This dichotomy is best seen on album highlight “Bored in the USA,” where he sings in traditional ballad form about anything but traditional topics: consumerism, suburban life, and that all too strange union known as marriage. By the time the chorus of “I’m bored in the USA/ Save me White Jesus” arrives, you don’t know if you should laugh or cry. It’s these types of moments during the album when emotions of joy, anger, and sadness collide, creating one hell of a powerful Shakabuku. Then again, all of us could probably use a little spiritual kick to the head once in a while.
“Bored in the USA”: