For most of the 18th century, men like Father John Misty were referred to as libertines. Their aim was pleasure, their creed was self-satisfaction. They weren’t immoral so much as they were amoral. Society’s rules and standards weren’t flawed, necessarily, but they were just inadequate, inaccurate and irrelevant. Much of their daily routines consisted of elaborate and self-aware schemes for attention, and anything done during the day was done in the joy of leisure. Men like Father John Misty lived in whimsy. They lived in the world they created for themselves.

I Love You, Honeybear

Father John Misty
Sub Pop

It’s important to consider I Love You, Honeybear within this context because until now, for Father John Misty, the concept of sex has been easy. The concept of love, on the other hand, has not. Love in this framework is like that elusive but fearsome luxury, the awe-inspiring aura that lurks behind scented candles, French bottles of wine and Egyptian cotton bed sheets. In Father John Misty’s eyes, the mystery in any relationship isn’t a question of sex or harbored secrets, but of how two people – any two people – can create this thing called love between them.

Misty (a.k.a. Josh Tillman) has called I Love You, Honeybear a concept album, inspired by the experience of his marriage to his long-time girlfriend, Emma, who is a photographer. The essential “concept” of the album is that it tries to recreate the confusions as he felt himself becoming more and more exposed – a sort of gradual turn of soul. He found his own world invaded and usurped by the world of a wonderful woman. For the first time in his life, he could feel his schemes, tricks and self-defenses dissolve into something like real affection. The true shock occurred when he realized that he was strangely comfortable with all of this.

The album’s enormous sound is, in part, a response to the disorientation we feel when we must surrender our own defenses to someone we care about but hardly know. On I Love You, Honeybear, Misty constructs cathedrals to give his emotions enough space to reverberate and then conclusively condense. The album’s landscape is vast and expansive, but it’s also filled with intricacies and subplots. Take these 11 songs together and there’s a collected sense that Father John Misty reaches and expands out into the open plains of love – in the hope of finding some small truth to take back with him to share with Emma.

And he does. He does this a thousand times over. This is Tillman the monogamous lover, the loyal husband, the sex symbol in hiding, baring his soul to his new wife, listing all the things he barely understands about their union. His anxiety is evident from the outset, as he sings in the opener, “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with / The future can’t be real, I barely know how long a moment is.” And, for a moment, this sounds like an earnest confession. Then, Misty qualifies it with, “Unless we’re naked, getting high on the mattress.” In fact, many of the album’s sincerest moments are delivered within these little quips and witticisms. They’re fun and intelligent. He writes them in so often and under every circumstance, which proves his great devotion to this budding love. While the humor might sound affronting at first, we come to understand that it’s just his way of being himself.

Aside from the soul-filled philosophical aspects of the album, it is, in its sound alone, a folk-pop masterpiece. These songs could exist as any one of a dozen Elton John B-sides or Randy Newman bootleg cuts. Misty pulls the melodies straight from ’70s psychedelic rock and adds to them the emotional gusto of modern folk and indie, making them sturdy, replete with warmth. The richest part, perhaps, of I Love You, Honeybear is that it sounds like a complete album. “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” touches on the southern influence, while “True Affection” graces electronic. “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” bears soul, “Strange Encounter” addresses prog rock and “The Ideal Husband” achieves classic rock.

The album’s emotion culminates with the last three tracks, each reminiscent of a distinct Beatles-esque temperament. “Holy Shit” is teeming with historic and cultural allusion as Misty wonders what it all has to do with him. In his reasoning, Misty stops and ponders when he reaches the idea of love. “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity,” he belts uncertainty along with several other questions. Then, however, he offers the song’s first assured statement, the one thing he knows for sure: “But our fantasy is what that’s gotta do with you and me.”

While “I Went to the Store One Day” quietly capitalizes on this sentiment, “Bored in the USA” predicts it. Indeed, “Bored” supersedes the whole album as a reflection on what it means to love in modern American society. Set to a soft piano melody and backed by a chorus of strings, Misty reveals how far he’s come in his time with Emma. “Now, I’ve got a lifetime to consider all the ways / I’ve grown more disappointing to you / As my beauty warps and fades / I suspect you feel the same,” he sings. Suddenly, the album clicks. In light of his marriage, his emotional confusion and thoughts about love, a clear idea takes shape. Father John Misty has become, hopelessly and unwittingly, a romantic.

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