When Josh Tillman, also known as Father John Misty, dropped “Bored in the USA,” the single for his upcoming album “I Love You, Honeybear” in 2014, most of the music world responded with praise. Starting as a slow piano ballad, the song evolved into a sharp self-reflection that exposed Tillman’s personal disappointments and flaws. As a track, it was mesmerizing — if not a little confusing.
It has been two years since Tillman’s last solo release: the folk-and-indie-tinged “Fear Fun.” Until then, Tillman was better known as the drummer for indie-folk giant, Fleet Foxes. He had built up a solid amount of solo material, but never made any major splashes. With the release of “Fear Fun,” however, it became apparent that Tillman is more than the man behind the drum kit. His pained yet confident voice and elegant vibrato revealed that there was a very complex and broken soul behind the Father John Misty name.
“I Love You, Honeybear” sets up a landscape of contradictions, with Tillman, the leading player, as the hypocrite pulling the strings. The most compelling aspect of Father John’s music is the utter sincerity — ugly and unfortunate as it may seem. The listener is not made to feel sorry for Tillman as he airs his grievances, including America and women, but at the same time can’t help but empathize.
Perhaps this stems from Tillman’s acute awareness of his own flaws and the consequences they have on his life. This is no better showcased than on the aforementioned lead single, during which a frustrated Tillman, lamenting the materialism and fickle nature of the American people, wants to know “Do I get my money back?”
Tillman’s instrumentation expertly mirrors the sentiment of the album; every chord played on “I Love You, Honeybear” wavers, as if about to collapse from carrying some enormous burden. Especially on the album’s opener and title track, the music woefully yet unashamedly presents itself to Tillman’s listeners as sweeping strings and gloomy guitar chords that rise and fall with Tillman’s vocals.
The elegant folk and Americana instrumentation seems to be just another element of Tillman’s music, as every part of the songs is integral to the the album’s beautiful yet sorrowful tone. As sad as the music and lyrics may be, Tillman masters his innermost troubles and puts them on display without once becoming too melancholic.
As Tillman told the Guardian in an interview on Jan. 31, “I just wanted to write about love without bullshitting.” In service of that intention, every word is functional and necessary. With these words Tillman is able to paint beautifully sincere and often hilarious pictures in the middle of this otherwise desolate setting: “I want to take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in,” he confesses on Chateau Lobby #4.
“I Love You, Honeybear” is an intimate collection of Tillman’s most sincere and emotional moments. As flawed as he may appear, he emerges all the more admirable.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 4 print edition. Email Kieran Graulich at [email protected]