It’s indie rock lore at this point. As the story goes, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman, who spent the first decade of his career releasing numerous albums of depressing, straightforward folk and playing the drums for Fleet Foxes, moved from Seattle to California.
There, with the ghosts of Laurel Canyon and Jack Kerouac floating around his head, he ingested psychedelic mushrooms for the first time, sparking a night that found him getting naked in a tree and inventing his new musical persona, who he named Father John Misty.
Deeply steeped in 20th century American consciousness, yet utterly intwined in our current age, at times he embodied a kid’s show clown, a strip-mall preacher and a sleazy hustler from golden age of Hollywood.
While 2012’s Fear Fun introduced us to this character, it was on his 2015 sophomore album, I Love You, Honeybear, where Father John truly found his voice. Cynical, over-educated, self-deprecating and self-righteous, THIS was the snake oil salesman who could properly diagnose our modern condition. And boy, he didn’t hold back.
Grinding up his own blend of eclectic, retro-flavored indie rock, the Father John Misty sound is heavily indebted to Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and The Beatles, but unquestionably contemporary. Ballads like “The Ideal Husband” and “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddam Thirsty Cow” are at once tacky and gorgeous, and mirrored by his serious and sarcastic stance.
Of course, Father John Misty would be nothing without his biting lyricism, which is as intelligent as anything written this decade. His wicked wit, and unfiltered disdain for contemporary cliches, are unequalled on songs like “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt,” where he sings:
“She says, like literally
Music is the air she breathes
And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream
I wonder if she even knows what that word means
Well, it’s literally not that”
The album’s unquestionable climax comes late with the apathetic, painfully prophetic “Bored in the USA.” Splicing satirically-timed canned laughter under words decrying the disappointment of the American Dream, the song ought to be adopted as the new national anthem to our declining republic.
But underneath it all, and as the title attests, I Love You, Honeybear is a love letter, inspired by and dedicated to Josh Tillman’s newlywed wife.
On “Holy Shit,” which he supposedly wrote on their wedding day, Tillman anxiously lists out culturally-loaded phrases like gender roles, infotainment, dust-bowl chic, satirical news, planet cancer and online friends, before concluding:
“Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty
What’s your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?
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”
The hyper-rational words, when combined with his romantic, impassioned delivery, suggest the outspoken cynic is fighting off these illogical feelings of love, and losing, as if to say “Why do I feel so okay when everything sucks?”
And in this often troubling day and age, where it frequently feels like we’re all doomed and everything might be meaningless, that kind of precious discovery is goddam fucking beautiful.