“It’s all of me and none of me, if you can’t see that, you won’t get it.” Paraphrasing Philip Roth, American singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman said this when asked to explain his new moniker as Father John Misty. Steadily releasing solo records since 2004, Tillman had begun to lose interest in writing music, and by 2009, knew that Singing Ax would be J. Tillman’s final record. Disillusioned, and drugs in hand, Tillman drove down the coast with nowhere to go. Finding his narrative voice whilst writing a novel, he realized that his smart-ass sense of humour, and his actual conversational voice, were needed in his songwriting for it to be truly exclusive to him.
Cue in the lead single from his sophomore effort, “Bored in the USA”. Late 2014, the ruggedly handsome Tillman took his talents to The David Letterman Show. He begins formulaically, singing behind the grand piano. However, part-way through the performance, he ceases playing; and yet, the piano continues. He faces the audience, shrugs nonchalantly, and the strings begin to swell. During the bridge – “They gave me a useless education / and a subprime loan / on a craftsman home!” – laughter envelopes the room. Simulated, of course. A harsh criticism of middle-class America, the audience were left unsure if he even wanted their applause, pausing momentarily before doing so.
Though Honeybear is caustically funny, and bitingly ironic, it is, at face-value, a very romantic album. Written during the time of his engagement/marriage to his wife Emma, the record is a powerful statement regarding love in the mindless, social media obsessed, 21st century. It is not concerned with the illusion of love, one so often documented in fiction; it is rather concerned with the love that reads so raw and passionate, so incoherent and muddled, that one would believe it has to be fiction. At times, the record becomes uncomfortable listening to; knowing well that many of these lyrics are so personal and private that we are essentially imposing ourselves on a fledgling relationship.
Album standout, the captivatingly gorgeous “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”, showcases Tillman’s excellent writing. A stark love letter to his wife, filled with cherished memories (“You left a note in your perfect script: ‘Stay as long as you want’ / I haven’t left your bed since”), the joyous sound of the track climaxing with a chorus of mariachi horns. Other highlight, “Nothing Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow”, is a flawlessly written narrative in the perspective of a petulant, jealous Tillman, objectifying the woman he claims to love so (“Doesn’t take half that long for men about town to forget what’s mine”).
Though his love for Emma is often juxtaposed with frustration and irony in prior songs, the final two tracks are simply beautiful ballads exposing the tender nature of their relationship. “Holy Shit”, written on his wedding day, is in the perspective of a man ready to accept he is leaving behind a morass of ambivalence, and entering a life of endless contingencies (“Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me”). Followed by the delicate closer, “I Went to the Store One Day”, which considers their past, present, and future. “Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years”, he croons. Contingencies aside, Tillman knows his love for Emma is just beginning.
Described as, “A concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman who spends quite a bit of time banging his head against walls, cultivating weak ties with strangers and generally avoiding intimacy at all costs.” The album announcement is as humorous, beguiling, and honest, as the album itself. Honeybear is a rare achievement, by juxtaposing the bitter, frustrating side of a relationship against the passionate, carefree nature of their love, it is evident Tillman has reached a maturity where he acknowledges marriages fail, but he is more than willing to try. “Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted?” He asks on “Bored”. Judging from what we’ve heard, it seems in Emma, he already has.