J. Tillman spent four years as the drummer with Fleet Foxes after joining the band in 2008. But by then he’d already produced four or five solo albums. And since leaving the band in 2012, he’s added another, in the guise of his new persona Father John Misty. But nothing could have prepared us for what he offers up here, with this his second album, I Love You Honeybear.
Tillman said that, for years, he dreamt of garnering the kind of hallowed praise that the likes of Townes Van Zandt or Gram Parsons are garlanded with, and of remaining forever one of music’s fabled secret finds. But he gradually came to realise that the audience at his gigs were far more engaged with the relaxed, smart alec persona he adopted in between songs, than they were with the somewhat po-faced numbers he was ostensibly there to perform.
So he headed off into the desert with enough magic mushrooms to send a psychedelic elephant into space and sat down to write a novel. And it was only then that he finally found his song writing voice. This is the result.
As the boys from Pitchfork note in their review here, where it gets a suitably impressed 8.8, it is, at least initially, a disconcertingly slippery record to pin down.
Yes there are the sorts of soaring harmonies you’d expect from a former Fleet Fox. And sure, the Beatles are indeed an obvious reference.
But it’s the kind of Beatles album you might have heard had John Lennon made it all by himself five years after they split up, as he and Harry Nilsson downed industrial sized quantities of drugs in L.A. every night, sending the former Beatle on a rollercoaster of violent mood swings that saw him oscillate wildly from profound self-disgust and doubt, to arrogant disdain and scorn, and back again.
Even when Tillman puts the violent introspection of Lennon aside to momentarily channel George Harrison in When You’re Smiling and Astride Me, there’s a dangerous edge to the lyrics, not withstanding the honeyed sweep of the guitar.
It’s the perfect palliative to the track that precedes it, The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment, where a latter day Factory girl is felled by the kind of undiluted scorn a young Dylan would have approved of.
“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.”
What’s so impressive, and so emotionally engaging about the album is that it perfectly captures the confusion of youth, but it does so thanks to a lyrical and musical sophistication that only comes with age.
Sure it’s hard to know precisely when he’s merely striking a carefully constructed pose, and when he’s genuinely shedding the many masks to reveal the boy beneath. But his glorious grasp of melody, and the unrestrained passion that he delivers them in give a strong sense that beneath the surface scorn, there’s a lot more of the real him on show than he’d care to readily admit.
And it’s that combination of un-repentant intellectual confidence with profound emotional confusion, together with the clear sense that this is an album, that has been clearly thought about and meticulously programmed, that makes this such an impressive piece of work.
Not just a serious album, this is the record against which all the others this year will be judged. You can see him perform one of its songs, Bored in the USA on Letterman here.
Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on all the very best and worst in film, television and music.