Josh Tillman uses his Father John Misty alter ego to explore real feelings on new record
Technically speaking, 2012’s Fear Fun was Father John Misty’s debut record. More accurately, though, it was Josh Tillman’s eighth record. Before adopting the new moniker, Tillman’s credits included a stint as the drummer for Saxon Shore, and then Fleet Foxes. In other words, by the time Father John Misty was beginning his career, Tillman was already a seasoned musician.
The name change was a weird one, too, bringing to mind a charismatic cult leader. According to Tillman, it literally means nothing, just a totally arbitrary name he invented. However, “Father John Misty” immediately became something new for Tillman. Perhaps it was simply the act of assuming an alter ego, but Fear Fun explored completely new musical territory than his prior seven albums, which tended to wallow in dreary, muted folk. It skipped along adventurously through ’70s pop, folk, soul and rock, all with a toe-tapping quality to it. His full-band arrangements and his songwriting skills are better than ever. If there’s one overarching weakness to the record, it’s a certain coldness. He was writing great songs, but was he really feeling them?
I Love You Honeybear, which he releases on Sub Pop on Feb. 10, is Tillman’s ninth record, and his second as Father John Misty. If Fear Fun gave him the distance to get outside of his head long enough to explore the craft of songwriting, not just his miserable thoughts, the new album finds him exploring his new personality more deeply.
The genre palette he draws from is similar, but leans a little more toward R&B, also finding influence from Randy Newman, and taking on bigger arrangements. The full band is complemented with orchestral strings, waves of horns, percussion, electronic texturing and the occasional ring of a glockenspiel. The music is sweeping and epic, but that works for him. As a singer, he actually sounds like he’s feeling it, or at least he’s gotten better at faking it.
But what exactly is he feeling? On the surface, it’s love. The title cut is a gorgeous ballad, a love song to “honeybear,” perhaps one of the most generic pet names imaginable—perhaps pointedly so. Each song deals with love in some capacity. In a long, rambling and frankly bizarre press release, he explains in no uncertain terms that the album is about love, but he doesn’t seem very comfortable with the idea. Here’s a snippet several paragraphs in, after he’s explained he’s never tried to write a love song before:
“It seems like the only acceptable perspectives from which to write about love in the current cultural hegemony are that of 1.) persecuted, heartbroken pathos or 2.) infantile, sentimental banality. More often than not the former (1.), which is really not to sing about love at all, but rather the absence of love, which is self-pity, which is nothingness, or, more accurately: jerking-off, which takes a lot less work than honest-to-God fucking.”
He goes on to describe I Love You, Honeybear as “a concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman [yes, himself] who spends quite a bit of time … cultivating weak ties with strangers and generally avoiding intimacy at all costs.”
Creating a concept album about yourself in the third person is so instantly eye-rolling, it’s hard to look past it. However, if anything, it sheds light on why Tillman suddenly gave himself a stage name over a decade into his career—this is it.
Or maybe it’s all a joke, or just horribly self-indulgent? Or maybe we should indulge him as he jumps between identities in order to sing about love. It’s perhaps the most sung about subject on the planet, but how often does a love song actually ring true? As basic and unifying as love is, it’s one of the most complex experiences we can have. How else can you honestly explore it without diving into its contradictions?
Look at the title cut, a beautiful, sweeping ballad in which Tillman expresses something sad, sweet and tragic. (“I brought my mother’s depression/you’ve got your father’s scorn/and a wayward aunt’s schizophrenia/but everything is fine/don’t give in to despair/I love you, honeybear.”) The remainder of the album carries this pleasant tone musically, which creates an effective platform to dissect the bittersweet phases of love. The closing track, “I Went To The Store One Day,” jumps out with a more somber tone, and retells the day he and his partner met, and the long life he imagines they will share together. (“For love to find us of all people/I never thought it would be so simple.”)
Whatever the truth in any of all this is, it seems Tillman is getting a better handle on the identity he created for himself, and a better understanding of how to use it to express real feelings.
INFO: Friday, Jan. 16, 8 p.m. Bret Harte Hall in Roaring Camp Railroads, 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton. $25. 335-4484. PHOTO: Josh Tillman plays Roaring Camp on Jan. 15 as Father John Misty.