Father John Misty’s Declaration of Love

by Sanoja Bhaumik

Joshua Tillman is on a quest to be genuine. In his efforts to achieve this evasive goal, in 2013 he adopted a new persona and has since created a sarcastic album riddled in irony. I Love You, Honeybear (2015), the second album released under the name Father John Misty, delves into a new, distinct sound, while providing hilarity and insight to the listener.

The album cements Tillman’s dramatic departure from his earlier days as the former drummer and backing vocalist for the Fleet Foxes. Tillman helped successful indie folk band promote their 2011 album Helplessness Blues. As opposed to the fast-paced, chaotic moods portrayed by I Love You, Honeybear, Helplessness Blues depicts a more sophisticated, analytical, and dark attitude. In Helplessness Blues, songs like “Montezuma” and Grown Ocean” create an atmospheric and calming effect, all while portraying a deeper meaning of regret and omnipresent loneliness. In “Montezuma,” the lyrics “In dearth or excess, both the slave and the empress, will return to dirt, I guess,” depict a depressing landscape of nothingness—a universal state of emptiness. Smooth vocal tones accompanied by Tillman’s background vocals create an eerie, mysterious mood.

Only four years after the debut of Helplessness Blues, Tillman’s song titles on I Love You, Honeybear depart dramatically to include “Holy Shit”, “Bored in the USA”, and “I Went to the Store One Day”. The eerie, acoustic atmosphere of the Fleet Foxes tracks have been replaced with a chaotic medley of orchestras, brass instruments, and thick chords, all led by Tillman’s strong voice. As a member of the Fleet Foxes, Tillman rarely had the opportunity to play his own style of music, the very style so clearly exhibited by his latest album. Fleet Foxes had already acquired their folksy, melodic sound before Tillman’s arrival as drummer. In fact, as a member of Fleet Foxes, Tillman often played as an opening act soloist, proceeding after his set to sit back as the drummer during the main show. While it may appear that Tillman has revolutionized his own sound since his departure from the band, it would be more truthful to say that the Fleet Foxes’ sound was never truly his.

Underneath the riddled titles and lyrics, in I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman explores and questions the expression of love through music. In a January 2015 interview with The Guardian, he states that he “just wanted to write about love without bullshitting.” In Tillman’s eyes, the only way to write clearly about love is to write about daily, tedious occurrences and interactions, which combined define a meaningful relationship. In the titular song “I Love You, Honeybear”, Tillman introduces the listener to the album by describing its subject: his relationship with his wife, Emma. The song oscillates between specific personal situations and visual images from their relationship to greater themes that define them as a couple. Tillman writes, “I’ve brought my mother’s depression, you’ve got your father’s scorn and wayward aunt’s schizophrenia,” in one line, depicting a situation which only he and his wife can remember. This line references the specific emotional and psychological barriers of Tillman’s marriage, specifying conditions such as depression and schizophrenia and their familial origins. Here, a public song tells a story of an intimate problem. An ordinary listener does not recall the same memories as an artist, and the phrase effectively separates Tillman from his audience. In contrast, he later writes “everything is doomed, nothing will be spared, because I love you, honeybear,” which speaks of the inevitable conflict and desperation that every relationship confronts, regardless of its strong emotional ties. By speaking about a universal condition of a relationship, this phrase broadens the scope of the song and resonates with the experiences of Father John Misty’s larger audience.

This juxtaposition of experience is the essence of Father John Misty. I Love You, Honeybear does not only describe love, it expresses it. Tillman realizes that love stories are not always dramatic or theatrical, and relationships are a continuation of one’s routine life. Tillman successfully describes his own relationship in a seemingly ordinary fashion and throughout writes about events that are personally meaningful. At the same time, he is able to connect ideas specific to himself to others, by expressing the often mundane, yet incredibly special, moments of a relationship. Although the album is an individualized creation, it quickly transforms into a universal declaration of love.

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