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Father John Misty: I Love You Honeybear

Late last year, Josh Tillman launched the countdown to his newest record with one of the more bizarre TV appearances in recent memory. Debuting the album’s lead track “Bored In The USA” in front of the nation, Tillman could’ve been mistaken for a stand up comedian, pretending to play a piano which he then sprawled over in an awkward approximation of the stock “sexy lounge singer” pose, strolling around the Late Show stage with his hand in his suit jacket pocket, shrugging and rolling his eyes at his own lyrics and even employing canned laughter to emphasise the song’s climactic cluster of rapid-succession punchlines. To those not already acquainted, the performance might’ve seemed like a long-overdue introduction to an established cult artist, one comfortable enough with his own reputation and career trajectory to sneer openly at both himself and his audience, but whilst Tillman has indeed been releasing albums since 2004, the persona seen on Letterman’s show only came to the fore a few years back when he tired of playing insular, skeletal folk, loaded up on mushrooms and left Seattle for California and a future as a writer. The novel is yet to materialise, but the experience produced at least one great character: the guy from the Letterman performance, Father John Misty – self-centred, self-loathing, deadpan narrator of 2012’s Fear Fun, and now the star of that album’s grand, warts-and-all sequel I Love You Honeybear. Misty is a complex creation, an exaggerated amalgam of LA stereotypes – the semi-spiritual Laurel Canyon counterculture bum, the wannabe actor, the undiscovered writer with a shit-hot screenplay in the bag, the over-polished smooth operator, the back-stabbing bitch, the spoilt brat who thinks they are owed fame and fortune – but whilst he plays the part very well, one would hope Tillman didn’t base it too closely on himself. Because although his stories invariably bristle with the same dry wit exhibited on The Late Show, Misty is also a bit of a bastard, the kind of person who has done nasty stuff in the past but doesn’t regret it, the barfly who would regale you with bullshit and then steal your wallet while he shook your hand, the charming new best friend who gets you into a fight and disappears as soon as the fists start flying; the kind of guy, in short, that you wouldn’t want your sister (or your daughter, or your mother for that matter) to date, or your brother (or son, or father) to go into business with. On “The Ideal Husband”, he recites a litany of his misdemeanours – “Didn’t call when grandma died/ I spend my money getting drunk and high/ I’ve done things unprotected/ Proceeded to drive home wasted/ Bought things to win over siblings/ I’ve said awful things, such awful things” – without any real sign of remorse, apparently as the preamble to a marriage proposal, and his version of being being really, truly in love is finding someone else who hates all the same things as he does; even at his funniest, there’s a sting in the tail, Misty annoyed to the point of despair by a lover’s poor use of language: “She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes/ And the malaprops makes me want to fucking scream/ I wonder of she even knows what that word means/ Well it’s literally not that.” There’s a fine line between being clever and being too clever for your own good and – as Misty – Tillman balances on it like a tightrope walker, but like Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker before him, the good Father pulls off the intellectual outsider look with enough panache that it almost – almost – makes bitterness and cynicism seem like attractive character traits. Of course, it helps that the album is almost exclusively grounded in the kind of warm, organic rock our parents sat around getting stoned to – Nilsson, the Eagles, post-split Lennon and McCartney – making the protagonist feel like a seldom-seen favourite uncle, albeit one who is more than likely to cause an almighty row around the Christmas dinner table; built around breezy, mid-tempo country-soul and elegantly orchestrated pop, most of these songs sound like early ’70s AM radio staples, lending Honeybear the air of a well-worn classic. Only one song, “True Affection”, veers away from the overall sonic blueprint, using gently percolating Postal Service-esque synth-pop to illustrate the irony of “connecting” via social media with people you never see face-to-face, and whilst it’s a nice enough tune on its own, in the context of the album it sticks out like a rushing raver at an old folks’ barn dance – a fact that can’t have escaped Tillman’s attention. That he deemed it appropriate to include anyway is typical of his perverse sense of humour, a fat middle finger to people like me who would find fault in such things, and although Misty rarely ventures beyond (relatively) harmless mischief, Tillman seems to understand that a good guy who has done a few bad things is a decidedly less interesting prospect than a bad guy who occasionally decides to do something good. To wit, given the choice (and assuming said aircraft wasn’t in the process of being hijacked by terrorists), would you prefer to be seated on a long haul plane flight next to muddled mobster Tony Soprano or Liam Neeson’s character from Taken and his very particular set of skills? If your answer would be the latter, then perhaps you should just forget all about this guy and go back to your Ed Sheeran records; but if you like your lead roles to be more complex – comical, conflicted, constantly at war with their own conscience – then Misty might just be your man. Perhaps the reason Tillman seemed like such a star on The Late Show is that music these days so desperately lacks anything resembling a big personality that anyone who can make us sit up and take notice – and, God forbid, crack a smile – could fool us into believing they’re the next big thing. On the evidence of this wonderful record, Father John Misty may be the (anti-) hero we’ve been waiting for.
I Love You Honeybear is out now on Sub Pop (U.S.)/ Bella Union (EU); check out “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” below.

About foamhands

My name is Michael Dix; I'm a decade or so past being down with the kids, but to me new music never gets old. Apparently I like music that sounds like faulty kitchen appliances and ritual slaughter; really I just like what I like, whether that happens to be indie, pop, punk, hip hop, metal, electronica, Afrobeat or jazz. Follow me on Twitter @FoamHandsBlog to receive notifications of new posts and the occasional random brain-fart, and please share links wherever you can. Enjoy!

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