THERE'S NO SHORTAGE of divorce albums. From Dylan's Blood on the Tracks to Beck's Sea Change to countless others, record stores teem with songwriters airing their dirty laundry for the world to see. But of albums that explore the beauty, complexity, and trepidation that come with marriage—especially a young marriage—there is a resounding silence. It is evidently easier to write about pain and loss than love and intimacy. "Happiness writes in white ink on a white page," said a cynical Henry de Montherlant.
I Love You, Honeybear, Josh Tillman's second album under the name Father John Misty, is about marriage. It wasn't the album he'd intended to make following the success of the first Father John Misty full-length. "I had a whole other album before this one," Tillman says on the phone from New Orleans, where he recently relocated with his wife, Emma. "I had a whole album's worth of material. It was basically an extension of Fear Fun. And it was really boring. The material started to become redundant."
The story is by now well known—how Tillman abandoned his high-profile job as the drummer for Fleet Foxes (and his lesser-profile job as the deep and brooding folksinger J. Tillman), drove a van full of magic mushrooms down the West Coast, had mystical realizations in a tree in Big Sur, and settled in Southern California, where he invented the leisure-suit-wearing, debauched Father John Misty alter-ego. In 2012, he released the critically acclaimed Fear Fun, with songs about taking drugs, talking to dogs, and having sex in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It was an exaggerated portrait of Tillman's life at that particular moment.
If Fear Fun was written in part under the influence of psychedelics, I Love You, Honeybear was written under the influence of love and intimacy. Tillman and Emma met in 2011, a chance meeting in the parking lot of a Laurel Canyon country store, and they married not long after, in 2013. The songs on Honeybear were written over the course of their early courtship and eventual marriage. But, far from being a collection of love songs, Honeybear is Tillman at his most open and vulnerable, giving voice not only to the excitement of falling in love, but the uncertainty and anxiety that comes with committing the rest of your life to someone.
"You can't talk about intimacy without talking about this very painful unmasking process that is crucial to the whole enterprise," Tillman says. "And while growing in intimacy with someone is incredible, and is transformative and exhilarating, it's very painful to be seen for what you are. Intimacy changes you, whether you like it or not. Love changes you. You will not make it to the other end as the same person that went into this thing. The person you present, to attract someone else to you, it's impossible to maintain. You have to keep peeling back these layers."
I Love You, Honeybear explores every facet of intimacy, from romance and sensuality to jealousy and insecurities. On the title track, Tillman sings of "Mascara, blood, ash, and come/On the Rorschach sheets where we make love." Mindful of resorting to clichés, or of being taken too seriously, Tillman's dry humor permeates each of his songs, to the point that even the most intimate moments have a tongue-in-cheek aspect to them. "I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in," he sings on "Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)."
"I think the material on this album is fairly radical, but I don't think that most people really equate that with love or intimacy," Tillman says. "I think most people equate love with this blasé contentment. This experience with Emma, it was so volatile and so paradigm-changing, that I felt this mandate to do it justice. At least from my perspective, there was no precedent for an album like this, about intimacy. I was so convinced that it had never been done before, which is obviously absurd. But the whole creative endeavor is nothing if not a massive absurdity."
After the music was written, Tillman brought the songs into a Los Angeles recording studio. The recording process didn't come easily. "I started second guessing everything about it," Tillman says. "[I tried to] mask these songs behind these giant 'just kidding' arrangements. It had gotten so twisted, to a place where I was like, 'I am going to musically satirize love, with these big schmaltzy arrangements.' And it was horrible. I would come home late at night with these really misguided arrangement decisions, but it was Emma who had the insight. She's the only person who would tell me, 'You are hiding. You've come this far with writing this material. If these songs are beautiful, you just need to own up to that and let them be beautiful.'"
I Love You, Honeybear is a caustic, emotionally fraught, and beautiful record, combining elements of folk, country soul, and Southern California psychedelic rock. The schmaltzy arrangements were eventually replaced with lush strings, elaborate production, and delicate harmonies. The cynical humor remains, as do a liberal amount of F-bombs. In the end, it is a portrait of a methodically constructed character, gradually and hesitantly beginning to drop the act.
"Someone came into my life at the exact right time, someone who really challenged me, and I think I was really in danger of buying my own bullshit," Tillman says. "I followed my instincts with Emma, and in the same way with this album. 'Do I really want to rewrite the whole book right now?' It really felt like jumping the shark, you know? 'Does anyone really want to hear an album about my fucking intimacies?' To me, my main anxiety was about sentimentality, and about trivializing my experience with her. But I'm glad I followed my instincts."