Nothing characterizes modern pop culture more than ironic detachment. Sincerity is something to be desperately avoided with a joke or an eye-roll. For an artist like Father John Misty, whose previous songs involve tongue-in-cheek recounting of doing hallucinogens or having sex in cemeteries, this persona of bitter irony fit like a glove. Under the Father John Misty pseudonym, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman filled his psychedelic-folk songs with cynical jabs aimed toward both himself (or at least the persona he’s adopted) and everyone around him on his 2012 album "Fear Fun."
When an artist who has become the poster child of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm puts out an album titled “I Love You, Honeybear,” eyebrows understandably rise. It’s in this strange juxtaposition of sardonic and genuine emotional sincerity that this album revels in to hilarious, moving and beautiful effect. “I Love You, Honeybear” is an album about Tillman’s relationship with his wife. While a lesser artist would achieve this with a trite, saccharine ballad, Tillman digs in to multiple aspects of his relationships, giving his storytelling a cumulative depth that builds a complicated portrait as the album goes on.
Tillman’s internal battle between sincerity and sarcasm is like a lyrical fencing match; on the album’s title track, he follows “Everything is doomed and nothing will be spared” with “But I love you, honeybear.” With a grandiose doo-wop backing and soaring vocals, he describes “Mascara, blood, ash and cum/On the Rorschach sheets where we make love.”
On some tracks, Tillman’s inner cynic wins out; on the airy “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.,” he describes a brief disposable lover of his past by her petty annoyances, like using the word “literally” incorrectly and taking all of his drugs. The track directly preceding it, “True Affection,” explores the false intimacy of communicating through technology; the song uses a mix of a string section and synths to brilliantly further communicate this disconnect.
Other tracks stand out with their sincerity: “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” with gorgeous, soulful, Marvin Gaye-esque instrumentation, contains lyrics almost completely devoid of his signature snark. In it, his self-deprecation is less humorous and more apologetic as he describes his level of intimacy with his wife. This self-deprecation becomes self-flagellation on the track “The Ideal Husband.” In it, he rips down any veneer of detachment as he details his past indiscretions in a series of blunt confessions. His self-aware persona is dismantled as he talks about the “awful things” he has done. In a previous album he may have had some sort of punchline about these things, but in this one he lays it all out out with a tone of sobering remorse.
However, the mixing of the cynical and heartfelt with Tillman’s sense of humor makes for the strongest tracks on the album. On the somber piano-driven track “Bored in the USA,” Tillman mixes his own personal anxieties about falling out of love with his wife with lines like “Save me, White Jesus!” The pomp of music plays off of the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, giving the song an enigmatically listenable quality.
The track “Holy Shit” is undoubtedly the high point of the album. It begins with simple guitar and piano chords and builds to a gigantic crescendo of voice and ornate instrumentation. The lyrics list off seemingly unconnected and sometimes contradictory one-liners. Completely deadpan, Tillman sings about “eunuch sluts, consumer slaves.” He finishes off the song with what could be the thematic thesis statement of the entire album: “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.”
“I Love You Honeybear” manages to be one of the funniest, most heartfelt and most unique singer-songwriter albums to come out in the past year, if not the past decade.
For fans of: Conor Oberst, Sharon Van Etten, War on Drugs