Father John Misty, the main project of singer-songwriter and former Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman, occupies a curious space in the current folk-rock renaissance. Unlike the radio pop flavors of folk music popularized by Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, the bitter, heartrending singer-songwriter mode of Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen and the irreverent, genre-destroying freak folk of acts like Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens circa-The Age of Adz, Tillman deals in revisionist folk. He designs his music around the skeletons of ‘70s rock ballads and Americana classics from artists like the Band and Neil Young and adds a dash of acerbic wit and idiosyncratic personality. His music, as a result, is broad in scope, deeper and wider than most modern folk reclaimers, less concerned with being tasteful and more independently innovative. It’s where traditionalist virtues meet a playful sense of iconoclasm, something the folk genre is known for but has been sorely devoid of in contemporary culture.
With sophomore album I Love You Honeybear, Tillman does himself justice by waging war on folk’s perennial reputation as a stuffy genre mired in self-seriousness and monotony. He takes stylistic conventions and grates them through an ironic comic filter and adds a hefty dose of musical variety. Only three songs into the album he’s gone so far off the traditionalist map that he’s in full-on electro mode (“True Affection”) before jumping right back into Elton John-level ballads and cerebral folk hymns. His lyrics are as poignant as they are hilarious, littered with nearly as much slang, harsh profanity, ironic non-sequiturs and clever turns-of-phrase as the average hip-hop record. With all the album’s charming quirks, it could justifiably be called post-modern folk.
Beyond the progressivist exterior, though, I Love You Honeybear is all bittersweet Americana, tackling classic themes of love and loss and workingman’s blues over mournful string sections and choirs. Piano ballad “Bored in the USA” is the head and heart of the album, a sad and powerful ode to modern American indifference from a political and personal perspective. In four-and-a-half short minutes, Tillman dismantles the religious obsession, economic inequality and social apathy of the disappearing middle-class without ever approaching preachiness, all while maintaining an intimate connection to the music. There are no soapboxes or high horses on I Love You Honeybear, just plainspoken heartache over our universal confusion in the modern day First World.
Imagery of apocalyptic doom pervades the album (“getting high on the mattress while the global market crashes,” Tillman sings on the title track), but a poignant love album is buried somewhere beneath all the fire and brimstone. “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” is a relatively straight-forward love song, the best example of sincere romantic sentiment on the album, but every track has some reference to affection and sentimentality, even the penultimate song “Holy Shit”, which alludes to holocausts, cancer, and original sin but ultimately centers around the necessity of love (“Love is just an institution based on human frailty”, “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity”, etc.) I Love You Honeybear fits snugly in the American folk tradition by pairing imagery of absolute, catastrophic destruction with the virtues of romance.
It’s dense and ambitious, but in time I Love You Honeybear very well may prove to be an essential document of the era, inventive and revealing both musically and thematically. Very few artists have managed to analyze the American condition in the 21st century with such clarity and perception in the way that Tillman has here. Anyone who values the ability of folk artists to pull back the curtain on the human spirit will appreciate the genius of this album. It’s a record that needs to be listened to rather than heard.