The most important thing to know going into the new album is that Josh Tillman gave himself a mission in the construction of this album. Specifically: write perfect love songs. Here, this is how he described it in one of the endearing, self-aware pre-release press pieces he’s written:
I will say, however, that it seems like the only acceptable perspectives from which to write about love in the current cultural hegemony (HEGEMONY, HEGEMONY, HEGEMONY) are that of 1.) persecuted, heartbroken pathos or 2.) infantile, sentimental banality. More often than not the former (1.), which is really not to sing about love at all, but rather the absence of love, which is self-pity, which is nothingness, or, more accurately: jerking-off, which takes a lot less work than honest-to-God fucking.
The second thing to know is that he succeeds, in incredible fashion, in writing great, balanced love songs. I Love You Honey Bear is honest-to-God fucking.
It’s perfected by the album’s second track, “Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins),” which takes Tillman’s sharp writing and an array of gorgeous, grandiose trumpets to illustrate the revitalizing effect of his experience of cynicism-breaking love. The secret in his writing is in the focus and balance — a more pedestrian love song would focus on what a lover looks like, or what they do. In the tradition of other pitch perfect tributes, like Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” it’s about who she is. And the way Tillman paints that picture is startling:
People are boring, but you’re something else completely / First time you let me stay the night despite your own rules / you took off early to cheat your way through film school / you left a note in your perfect script, “Stay as long as you want” / and I haven’t left your bed since.
The only hint of idealism is in the tiny detail of her handwriting, avoiding any cheese or corn that would concern an outfit as satirical and snarky as Father John Misty. Throughout the song, less “perfect” details are drawn in to give depth — a second hand wedding dress that looks like murder evidence, for example. That’s the balance. Tillman lets a little darkness in so it feels real instead of a fleeting fantasy.
On “Holy Shit,” for example, Tillman thinks aloud: “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity” which is the most mechanical, sterile writing in a beautiful singer-songwriter melody. Still, there is a yin to every yang he puts in there: “But I fail to see what that’s got to do with you and me.”
This counter-weight darkness is most apparent on the song “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment,” a soft 70s style soul song that is nothing but a list of legitimately biting — but humorous — venting. It’s hard to tell if the target of his ire is the same woman he’s singing beautiful love songs to, but its audacious truthfulness is a welcome break and necessary diversity. There’s a verse that begins, “Of the few main things I hate about her.” The song ends on “She said she sounds like Sarah Vaughn, I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on. Why don’t you move to the delta?”
The absurdity doesn’t do any damage — if anything, the result is that you’re smiling during a love song, so how can that be bad?
It’s almost as if Tillman has to get the sugary sweet taste out of his mouth, like capitulating to his most cynical natural tendencies. That feels more real than anything in pop music — it isn’t an instant or even complete transformation. Even still, that spot is followed up immediately by the graceful soul of “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me.”
There’s something to be said about the way Tillman uses irony, either to defend himself from overwrought and boring sweetness, or just to infuse some personality into the songs. Irony can threaten to dull any sincere emotions, as Tillman knows, considering that he scrapped a cute cat wedding video for the album’s best love song. One of the album’s most amazing feats is that it employs self-aware irony without hurting its overall mission. “I Went To The Store One Day” features, in its climactic verse, the ridiculous line “[insert here a sentiment re: our golden years].” The absurdity doesn’t do any damage — if anything, the result is that you’re smiling during a love song, so how can that be bad?
Other forms of variety come in a song like “The Ideal Husband,” which seems to indulge in Tillman’s overbearing self-loathing as a way of exorcising it. “I’ve said awful things, such awful things / but now, now it’s out.” His marriage to Emma Elizabeth Tillman inspires a revelation, sure, but if he’s a man that has caused so much damage in the past, we are reminded that it can also be incredibly vulnerable.
There’s a detailed and intricate psyche to explore here. I Love You Honeybear is so chock full of golden lines that my inclination is to keep quoting them and continuously ask, “isn’t it great?” like I’m showing you slides from my family vacation. But that almost feels like giving spoilers. It’s that kind of enthusiastic shareable record. After this, no one has any excuse for falling on the plainest love song tropes.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.