opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
Joshua Tillman’s decision to record under the moniker Father John Misty was more than a name change; it was an emphatic musical revamp. 2012’s Fear Fun was his eighth studio album overall, but it felt closer to a debut, substituting a more vibrant, chromatic palette in place of the dimmer, vainglorious tones of Tillman’s early work. No doubt influenced by his four-year tenure as the drummer with the now dormant Fleet Foxes, Tillman has found greater success transcribing his former band’s blueprint while retaining his own outlier persona. Ambition is a good look on him.
Tillman co-produced Honeybear with Jonathan Wilson, whose last credit was Conor Oberst’s Upside Down Mountain. The majority of the album is rooted in the same vintage Californian folk-pop tradition – think the Eagles or Electric Prunes – but its reflections on globalization are decidedly contemporary. Honeybear is largely satirical, but the lyrics can go so gleefully overboard that it’s questionable whether Tillman expects you to take any of it seriously. He remains a limber lyricist, balancing witty eloquence with the profanity, traversing the autobiographical, sociopolitical and existential, often with little transition. On “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddam Thirsty Crow”, he throws out this heartfelt doozy: “But my baby she does something way more impressive than the Georgia Crawl/She blackens pages like a Russian romantic and gets down more often than a blowup doll”.
Despite his knack for a memorable verse, Tillman settles for conventional on occasion with his music. Honeybear’s heavy baroque and psych influences, while often lovely, sometimes fall victim to production work that’s overgrown with detail. The outlier is the bellicose, twisted country stomp of “The Ideal Husband”, which is suitably unsettling but plain. “Chateau Lobby 4” takes the opposite route, and veers towards preciousness before being saved by Tillman’s deadpan paraprosdokians (“I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”).
Other arrangements are just gorgeous, like the understated strings and butter smooth, gospel-tinged harmonies on standout track “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”. “Strange Encounter” strikes equilibrium between folk touchstones like The Byrds and modern melodies, while politically-charged, disillusioned tracks “Bored in the USA” and “Holy Shit” veer closer to the dustbowl Americana that Tillman has explored previously (“Save me White Jesus!”). Overall, Honeybear’s production is bright, lively and ambitious, half a world away from Tillman’s earlier albums compositionally. His voice is clean and dry – somewhere between Andrew Bird and Jason Molina. With it, he carries the right amount of rancor to make lines like “I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man/I mean like a goddamn marching band” persuasive.
Tillman lays out the plot beats with impressive consideration. The thematic changeups aren’t as abrupt as you might expect from an album with this much on its plate. About half of Honeybear’s tracks are love songs, and amidst the backdrop of market crashes and broken education systems, they take on a curious sort of intimacy, more humanizing and humourous. Tillman isn’t interested in worship. He doesn’t romanticize what is essentially a struggle to beat back your own ego to make room for someone else. This may seem revelatory, but Honeybear is also an acidic, cynical work. It’s a little too steeped in irony, not without tenderness, flippant but consternated, self-satisfied yet hungry for more, eager to expose the world’s duplicities alongside its own and then do nothing about it. B+