Seven or eight years ago you could show up at a venue in Seattle to hear your friends’ band play, and sometimes the opener would be a lanky young singer-songwriter doing what the trade requires—picking a guitar and singing songs that only a few folks in the room were actually listening to (It’s a rough calling.) Let’s call this person Josh, or, for simplicity’s sake, J.
In the years that followed J joined a band called The Fleet Foxes, a folk-rock act who had a pretty impressive national run. J then quit the Foxes and went on walkabout until he found a new, fictive personality he called Father John Misty, who released an album called Fear Fun, which has been one of my favorite and most re-played albums of the past several years.
Fear Fun felt—in fact, to this day feels—like an act of liberation. It’s an album made by someone who has thrown off the weight of whatever he thought he should write and sound like and has dedicated himself to writing and sounding like…, well, himself. Whether you’re on the inside or outside of the creative act, this is one of the biggest hurdles all artists have to cross.1
Of all the really great lines on Fear Fun (and they’re there by the bus-load) the following is perhaps my favorite, for it both captures the album in a nutshell—drug-addled, witty, usefully self-aware, and swaggeringly confident—while also perfectly articulating the act of finding one’s voice in relation to past inspirations:
I rode to Malibu on a dune buggy with Neil.
He said, You’re gonna have to drown me down on the beach if you ever want to write for real.
And I said, I’m sorry, but young man what was your name again?
Let’s fast-forward a few years. It’s been a week since the most recent Father John Misty album, I Love You, Honeybear, arrived in stores. The concept behind the album seems to go something like: Josh Tillman meets girl (Emma), they fall in love, get married, and experience heretofore unparalleled happinesses. And now Father John Misty has released an album addressing life in the wake of all these changes.
Like any excited fan I bought it the day it was released, had some buddies over to listen to it later that night, and have spun it through five times since. Here’s what I think about it so far:
The music on Honeybear is fantastic—it’s adventurous and sprawling and seems dedicated to constantly pushing itself into new territory. There’s the swelling, lush culmination of the opening title track; the mariachis that ring in on Chateau Lobby #4; the odd, this-shouldn’t-work-but-somehow-it-does electronic pulse of True Affection. The production and arrangements are great, most likely due to producer Jonathan Wilson. And Tillman sings his ass off on this record—his voice is all over the place and he sounds really, really good.
The lyrics, though, are another issue, and will be what I’m going to focus upon below. I’m choosing to go this route based largely on an interview in which Tillman defined himself foremost as a poet, which makes sense for someone working in the singer-songwriter tradition2.
The problem I have with this album is contained within the title itself, which to me appears incomplete— it seems someone forgot to put quotation marks around the entire thing. That is, it should read, “I love you, Honeybear.”
Quotations, of course, serve to differentiate and place distance, and often indicate a knowledge whose knowingness informs the ability to make fun of what it known. For example: If I say, I’m a Detroit Tigers Fan, I mean that I cheer for the Detroit Tigers baseball team. But if I say, I’m a Detroit Tigers “Fan,” we all know that by employing quotes I’m distancing myself from the concept of being a fan of this team, as well as probably adding a hearty dose of mockery to the very notion of fandom based upon some knowledge that I have about what it means to cheer for them. (To be clear: I’m solidly the former: Bless You Boys!)
The problem I see in this album is that nearly every reference to the act of having fallen in love is sung as if it were bracketed by quotations. By which I mean: there are too many miles of distanced, knowing, self-referential irony separating FJM from what he’s singing. And this distance sinks the album directly into a major and very stubborn problem: how self-aware, ironical, layered and fictive (what some might call “Post-Modern”) can you be when you’ve fallen in love?
Honeybear gives two answers: the first is A WHOLE FUCKING LOT!, which is both Tillman’s schtick as well as an answer which, as most of this album shows, produces little that’s valuable; the second response, given in a much quieter and more earnest voice, is none, which is what FJM allows himself to be on only a couple of tracks (not incidentally the best ones on the album; more on that below).
I’m going to break the title down into three different sections: I + Love You + Honeybear, and look at them in reverse order. I’ll pay scant attention to what Tillman is doing with one aspect of the “I,” which is simply playing with fictions (lots of people do it, it’s fun, and I like it.), and I won’t really spend much time on the “You” either. So, let’s start with Honeybear.
The issue with the missing-but-sung quotes around “Honeybear” is that the act of calling one’s love by a pet name seems to be something that both J Tillman and Father John Misty would forever refuse—after all, wouldn’t it be so predictable, so commonplace and banal, trite and positively expected, to fall in love and call your baby pet words like…., well…, baby?!?! And the essence of J Tillman being FJM is that both characters are too knowing, too ironical and far too self-aware ever to stoop to such commonplace predictabilities; in other words, neither of them would ever call their beloved Honeybear (though they might call her “Honeybear”).
The verb in the title is “Love,” and we’re about to get into real trouble. And not the sort of trouble that is an FJM-specific-trouble, but the sort of trouble that’s an all-of-our-trouble-trouble3. The difficulties in speaking about how you feel when you’re in love become obvious the moment you stop and think about them: specifically, when in love you feel alive and unique and vibratingly awake and a million other great things, and yet the only way to articulate that via language is via a language that is heavily trodden and foot-stomped. This is a major reason why love songs are so damn difficult to do well.4
In a note to his poem, The Thorn, Wordsworth wrote, “every man must know that an attempt is rarely made to communicate impassioned feelings without something of an accompanying consciousness of the inadequateness of our own powers, or the deficiencies of language.” The trap is double-wide and has post-holed FJM by both legs: he’s obsessively conscious of his own inadequateness, and the deficiencies of language are admittedly huge.
What all of us mean when we say, “(I) Love You,” to someone, is infinitely more unique, personal, and substantial than the words: (I) Love You, could ever convey. Yet our backs are against the wall here, for what other words are we to use? You can try translating this verb into another language, or if that’s not enough create a new one all your own; either way you’d just be schlubbing notions based in your original language and conceptions. Perhaps you could could resort to brinkmanship and insist you really, really! mean it, more so than anyone else ever has or could ever have!!
We’ve crossed off
Honeybear and Love You as viable options, and that means that only one thing remains: the I. You can see the conundrum: FJM is above singing pet names straight, and he wants to move beyond the tired, recycled words we employ in regards to love (Wordsworth’s “deficiencies of language”); all that remains is for him to fully inhabit the emphatic I making the expressions. It makes sense and isn’t an unreasonable approach, but it’s the reason this album unravels as it does.
The problem with the confessional “I” is two-fold: first, for as much as its confessions can be revealing, the I who’s making the confessions has Moloch-like tendencies. Given enough time that I will eventually become all consuming. As a not surprising result, the most frequently used word on this album is that damned assertive pronoun, I.
The other issue is that the I still has to say something, and repeating how happy I is because I is fallen in love won’t cut it long. And so FJM’s I resorts to flagellating itself as an act of asserting its uniqueness. This seems to be de rigeur in today’s world and could be called the dirty-laundry approach, the same that motivates people to go on Oprah and confess their shortcomings, as if authentic importance were to be derived in direction proportion to showing how badly you’ve behaved. (One could get real, real snarky here and think of this as the Alanis Morissette approach, in which poeticized versions of therapy notes suffice for lyrics.)
The huge majority of songs on this album are lyrically flimsy. They’re petty, selfish, self-absorbed, tyrannical, jealous, even bitter. Yes—bitter, which is baffling since our narrator has just met the woman of his dreams! By far the lowest point is the track, “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment,” which is about as unbecoming as the album gets (though “The Ideal Husband” and “Nothing Good Ever Happens…” both give it a solid run for its money).5
My guess is that FJM would stand by these words and argue that they’re a proper vehicle for capturing who he is—again, that I. To his credit he’s never shied away from acknowledging his shortcomings. But even if the lyrics accurately capture and express the subjective I, that doesn’t mean that the subject is worth being expressed, to say nothing about being interesting or deserving of being listened to. The obsessively self-obsessed I quickly grows quite tiresome.
Another way of looking at this would be: You’re a 33 year old man, have met the woman of your dreams, and people pay you to do what you want. I’m sure it’s not all puppy-dogs and ice-cream cones, but still: life doesn’t sound too bad to me. So why all the snarled teeth and bellyaching?
My concern here—and it is concern, because I wouldn’t spend the hours involved in this if I had written FJM off—isn’t, What effect will your winking, all-knowing, too-cool, ironically distanced attitude have upon love?, as if love were a ship living in fear of being scuttled. Instead, I’m worried what effect such an approach will have upon you, FJM.
Dare I suggest that if a better response can’t be found then the next album we hear from you might be the divorce album? I’m not saying that glibly; it’s a potentially clever turn of phrase but not a funny thought, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But the reality is that relationships in which I anxiously insists upon being All don’t seem to do real great.
And really, what gives man? You’re angry that a former one-night fling sang in an affected, soulful voice? You’re irate that somebody might hit upon your lady when you’re not around? And filling songs with bodily fluids might shock grandma, but it doesn’t compensate for all the other substance that is missing; instead it just reveals how stained with your own jerking-off these tracks are.
I don’t require Josh Tillman or Father John Misty or any other fiction he creates to act a certain way about any certain subject. But I do think it’s important that he realize this: you, the I who’s smeared himself like peanut butter into a shag carpet all over this album, is not cooler-than, or smarter-than, or more-ironical-than, or any other hip comparison-than, the act of having fallen in love. That reality makes you exactly like the rest of us, and while that might be difficult to accept, if your art is going to have a future you have to come to terms with that.
You can wink and laugh at yourself along the way because it really can be silly at times, but if you can’t transcend your pettiness, self-absorption and irony, I’ll be sad. Because I do like you and want to keep doing so. I also think that if you keep trying to get above-love you’ll soon sink yourself, and any other selves you create, in the worst possible way: under the weight of your-self.
Lest I sound like a total Donny-Downer, I want to highlight a couple songs I really do think are great from this album:
“Bored in the USA”. This is a clever, updated riffing on Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” which, in case you never listened closely, is a very satirical, socially critical song. “Bored” is dark and thoughtful and does a great job mocking middle-class American predilections and anxieties (and the pumped-in laugh-track provides a great contrast.) It relies a little heavily on stereotype, but hey, it’s still a damn good tune.
Holy shit what a great song “Holy Shit” is! It’s clever and thoughtful and shuffles along and is sharp-eyed insightful as all hell, and, as a friend noted, provides a pitch-perfect rebuttal to the core arguments of existentialism, captured in this lyric:
No one ever really knows you and life is brief.
So I’ve heard, but what’s that gotta do with this black hole in me?
Take that, Sartre!
The last song on Honeybear, “I Went To The Store One Day,” is the partial-fulfillment and contrast to what is absent in all the other lyrics on this album. In moments it’s simple, it’s alive to wonder and joy, it’s tender and beautiful and in awe of meeting a woman who has clearly blown Josh Tillman’s mind. Most notably, the I is present, but it isn’t insisting upon being in the forefront like some unruly child demanding a popsicle.
The song reminds me a lot of a mature version of the singer-songwriter who opened for my buddy’s band years ago. Maybe one of these days he’ll shed the irony and petty self-absorption and see that even though language is rife with deficiencies, the world is much bigger than the I his own eyes insist upon mirroring. Maybe he’ll even realize that though the trip to being Father John Misty was a lot of fun, Josh Tillman might just be alright.
- People often call this “finding your voice,” by which they generally mean the act of learning to sound (or paint, or write, etc) like only you can. This might seem it should be a simple act, but it’s not. All artists are working in the shadows of earlier artists, and impersonation is truly the highest form of devotion. Some are able to incorporate and imitate and find their way quickly while others get trapped there their entire creative lifetimes. Either way, this undertaking sheds light on two things: 1) why artists are so damned anxious about their work (“I’m afraid I’m just a derivative and poorly recycled version of [insert artistic influence]”), and 2) why artists need time to grow and develop. In our society the latter is most often paid for with money, which is why you should support your local creative people—buy their poems and go to their shows and hope that if they can keep at it long enough, something great will eventually come out. [↩]
- WTF Podcast with Marc Maron, episode #457; a good interview from a really great program [↩]
- I believe struggles-with-irony/distance in the face of big words/ideas such as love—or justice, or truth, or meaning, etc.—are especially prevalent in us Gen-X & -Y folks who are intelligent and creative, and for whom irony has become a sort of requirement for approaching such topics [↩]
- And another reason why poets are so damned important: who else is going to help save or revive language enough so that we aren’t stuck using the same word to express deep sentiments for our husband/wife/partner/lover as we use in regards to our newest commodity?? [↩]
- Perhaps it’s useful to pause and reflect for a moment upon Morrissey, who has made a career out of writing from distance and with great irony about love, albeit always from the angle of having been spurned, which, as a conceit, is much more effective than the guy who got the girl; regardless, the Moz has been floating into increasingly grumpy territory on his last couple albums, and it ain’t pretty. [↩]