Wednesday, February 18, 2015

album review: 'i love you, honeybear' by father john misty

So let me ask you all what might seem to be an interesting question: how seriously should we take music?

And I don't mean this in the tiresome argument that, 'oh, you take music too seriously, most people don't care about bad lyrics and they just want to dance and it's popular and on the radio and ergo it's good' and all that nonsense that I hear whenever I review a bad pop record. No, this is more related to music with more of a comedic or whimsical tone - and that in some cases, it doesn't get a lot of respect. Let me put it this way: it's very rare outside of specific comedy records that an album or an artist being funny or light-hearted is praised, at least not as a primary focus. And I'm guilty of this too - I love the albums from Run The Jewels and Open Mike Eagle last year for their composition and technique and raw emotional power, but I didn't really highlight that they also had a real sense of humour and wit beyond their dramatic emotional pathos.

The frustrating thing is that comedy can have real emotive power just like drama, and I'd argue it's even more difficult to achieve, especially if you're looking for something with staying power. And going for something like carefree whimsy is even harder - by its very nature it's frivolous and flighty, something that might bring a ready smile but it's extremely rare it can connect on that deeper level on its own merits without resorting to darker, dramatic cliches. I guess the closest thing I can think of are the Discworld novels by Sir Terry Pratchett, but he's a one-of-a-kind genius and is frequently praised for it.

So why bring this up? Well, when I started listening through the 2012 debut album Fear Fun from Josh Tillman under the alter ego Father John Misty, I really got a sense of that whimsy managing to stick for me. The album is a little difficult to describe - reminiscent of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, but instead of hazy hippie earnestness, Fear Fun was a rambling, semi-coherent record from a caricature of a hippie cult leader who is not only entirely self-aware, but careening out of flights of drug-addled cartoonish silliness. But there was wit and insight and a bacchanalian feel to the lyrics that was really infectious, even if to some extent it was completely full of shit. Josh Tillman may have initially built his reputation as a serious artistic folk singer-songwriter and some wildly exaggerated by everyone except him work with Fleet Foxes, but he sounded way more comfortable in a more lighthearted vein. Now the album did suffer for its more serious moments and its more conventional instrumentation, but I still recommend it and I was definitely curious to really dig into his sophomore followup I Love You, Honeybear - how is it?

Well, if I'm being completely honest, it's better. Actually, scratch that, not just better, but easily one of the best albums of the year. And really, considering how much critical acclaim this album has received, that shouldn't be any surprise to anyone, but here's a record that definitely deserves it - witty yet sincere, charming yet cutting, a gorgeously composed and musically beautiful album that ultimately devolves into biting yet intricate vivisections of both Josh Tillman himself, his prospective girl, and society around them. And while the whimsy is still there, the emotions underpinning it are more complex this time, backing the fearsome lyricism that shows exactly how great this brand of folk can be. Man, I've been looking for an album with this level of self-aware lyricism, and I'm so thrilled to find it. And yes, of course, the album is ridiculously funny, so much so that I'm going to try to avoid spoiling many of the best jokes but I'm placing a spoiler warning here regardless. Folks, this is another record you'll want to go in cold, because it's absolutely wonderful.

And the best place to start would be the central 'conceit' of the record, one of the big factors that makes it so damn funny. See, Josh Tillman is a singer-songwriter with the sort of liquid, earnest voice that's so smooth, plaintive, and honest that you'd expect him to be making the sort of crowd-pleasing pablum like, say, 'Thinking Out Loud' by Ed Sheeran. Because make no mistake, if Tillman wanted to coast by on raw charisma and make commercial 'white guy with acoustic guitar or piano' music, he could - and not only does he know it, he comments on it and uses it as an excuse to get as profane, lewd, and biting as possible. The easy comparison is early Billy Joel, but I'm reminded more in a bizarre way of Ariel Pink, using fantastically detailed and cutting lyricism to subvert their instrumentation, but while he uses material fused together from the cast-offs and dregs of pop culture, Father John Misty goes for gorgeous, sweeping melodies and moments of beauty that he can then intercut with sarcasm, desperation, and dry humping.

And make no mistake, the instrumentation on this record is fantastic. Every guitar strum bringing warm texture, drums having organic, sandy depth, the strings and organ the accents to bring a hint of class, the piano imported with lounge singer charm, and even steel guitar to add a country touch that never feels overdone. The title track with its interweaving melodies and soaring crescendos, 'Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)' with its rollicking handclap and gentle swing vibe with the horns, the twinkling triangle, psychedelic-tinged guitars and strings of 'The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment' that puts a smile on my face every time, the soulful country of 'When You're Smiling Astride Me' with the organ, piano, and steel guitar, the balance between lounge jazz and downbeat country of 'Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Old Crow', the dark and yet irrepressibly sticky and damn near perfect multi-tracked chorus of 'Strange Encounter' with the squawking guitar solo, the panicked, bluesy desperation of 'The Ideal Husband', the gorgeously melodramatic piano ballad 'Bored In The USA', and the beautiful acoustic wedding song 'Holy Shit' that has a strings-driven key change, and those Spanish guitar flutters on 'I Went To The Store'. And in the best part - which some of you will have already guessed - practically none of the lyrics fit with any conventional approach to these songs. In fact, the one place where they do, the more electronic and stiff 'True Affection' where he struggles to use technology to connect a relationship, it's easily the weakest track on the album and feels the most out of place.

Now before we go further, there's been a tendency to compare Father John Misty and this album in particular to the works of other artists who idolize the past and attempt to subvert it, specifically Lana Del Rey and her last album Ultraviolence. Now I could easily say that this album outstrips that record in every category from writing to instrumentation to vocal delivery - and it does - but specifically I want to revisit the core conceit of why Ultraviolence never worked for me and I Love You, Honeybear does: a discussion of drama and melodrama. Because on the surface, both records are trying to simultaneously evoke drama through tropes of the past using some autobiographical subject matter and subvert it through slightly more complex framing. Where Ultraviolence failed was here - Lana Del Rey embodied her character so completely with the writing never providing that additional commentary, and yet without any humour or desire to go over the top or make things more interesting or weird or fun, we simply got bad songwriting glamourizing a worse character that barely experiences any struggle she didn't inflict upon herself for no good reason. Josh Tillman sidesteps this in a few key ways: not only does the subtext make it clear his character is a complete lecherous dick in over his head, he colours it with enough humanizing detail and frames it so that we should be laughing at him. Instead of the over-privileged vintage princess, we get the sad-sack, oversexed creep of a songwriter that wouldn't be out of place on Inside Llewyn Davis or HBO's Girls.

And yet Josh Tillman is trying to tell a story here: the story of his relationship and eventual marriage to his current wife. Yep, this is a concept album, and what gets fascinating - and a little amazing - is that right from the start he doesn't place either of them on a pedestal. They start off screwing graphically and almost immediately things go off-course. The relationship struggles through technology and then seriously goes off the rails. 'The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment' never directly implies he's talking about his wife, but I like to think that it is, the sort of bitching that implies not just that said woman is kind of arrogant and self-absorbed, but that he's just as petty to go on about it. And yet somehow they're still together, even as he goes on tours and has to deal with women throwing themselves at him and guys trying to win her over. It's not the first point on this album where his contempt and disgust for people would hypocritically cast judgement upon them or take advantage of him comes to light, especially as he brands himself his own worst critic. And yet in his own desperation, realizing neither can change the other, he tries to change himself and proposes, even despite the myriad flaws they have both seen in each other - to quote, 'That's how you live free / to see and be seen'. And it's put to the test on 'Bored In The USA' - which at first, along with 'Holy Shit', didn't really seem to belong on this album thanks to their broader focus beyond the relationship. The social commentary leaps to light, the hard condemnations of monotonous family values, religious strictures, and lives devoid of truth - and he punctuates the lyrics with laugh tracks. Which, if anything, makes the message ring all the harder: like the great comedians who spoke on the world around them like the late George Carlin, his criticism was often just as relevant to the crowds who listened who laughed along anyway, not aware the joke was about them. Or perhaps they did realize it like Tillman does and are turning their derision on the guy who thinks he can speak to those real problems while living a bacchanalian dream. So maybe it's all the more potent on the final two tracks, where he seems to succumb to the same societal strictures he rages against by getting married - until we get the last track which not only brings things full circle to the mundane moment where he met his wife, but also to the point that really, those conventions only hold as much weight as they are given. Sure, they're getting married, but they're going to do it their way - because true love transcends it all. Because from the sounds of this album, they sound made for each other, for better or for worse.

In short, I Love You, Honeybear is gorgeously composed, incredibly well-written, bitingly insightful, and yet so goddamn earnestly performed that you can still root for them. Even though both partners in this relationship might deserve plenty of scorn and disdain for being kind of awful, their love for each other is more pure and gives them at least one quality that allows you to root for them in some way. Think Charlie's love for the Waitress on It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Adam's love for Hannah on Girls - both partners might be a little disgusting or mortifying or pathetic, but there's something honest about their fight for love and getting the same happy ending we all want that feels universal. In other words, I absolutely love this album and it's getting a 9/10 from me and my highest of recommendations. Folks, this album is one of the reasons I love folk music, and it's easily one of the best albums of 2015. Definitely make sure to check this out, because love stories like this are some of the best.

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