Time has made Josh Tillman bolder, and the older he’s gotten, the more introspective and baffling his songs have become. When he debuted the piano ballad “Bored in the U.S.A.” on Letterman late last year, the former Fleet Foxes drummer hinted at the introspective incisiveness of his sophomore LP: “Save me white Jesus… / Oh, they gave me a useless education / A subprime loan / A craftsman home,” he sang as pre-recorded studio laughter fluttered in the background.
Tillman’s debut in the Father John Misty guise — 2012’s Fear Fun — was a compelling wander through a carefully tilled garden of psych-folk, with detours to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and the singer’s fanatically fragmented dreamland. Conversely, the encore, I Love You, Honeybear, is littered with carefully wired bombs meant to blow up in the face of those seeking straightforward love songs. For an album so reverent of its romantic gestures, the LP often spits serious venom. “She says, like, ‘literally,’ music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me wanna fuckin’ scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means,” he deadpans on the fourth-wall-breaking “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment.” It’s grimly funny stuff, Disney schmaltz by way of John Oliver, a mindfuck that slashes expectations just as it conforms to them.
In the same breath, though, the recently married Tillman can’t manage to suppress the cheerful twinkle in his eye. Goopy doesn’t even begin to touch the sincerity of a song like “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” which unearths the mushmouthed romantic within. “You left a note in your perfect script / ‘Stay as long as you want’ / And I haven’t left your bed since,” he sings in 2015’s most down-to-earth relationship scene thus far. On “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” he paints the picture of his (newly realized) perfect woman: “She blackens pages like a Russian romantic / Gets down more often than a blow-up doll.”
That’s not to say I Love You, Honeybear is all diamonds and rosé. On “The Ideal Husband,” Tillman lets free a torrent of self-flagellating confessions: “Every woman that I’ve slept with / Every friendship I’ve neglected / Didn’t call when grandma died / I spend my money getting drunk and high.” His tall tales are mostly positive, if wry; “I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man / I mean, like a goddamned marching band,” he sings on the aforementioned “Apartment.” This stream-of-consciousness enthusiasm buoys the album as he wraps his songs in a lovestuck, string-laden bow, complete with quivering banjos. I Love You, Honeybear only falters in occasional moments of fatigue from the barrage of intricate wordplay (“I came by at seven in the morning / I said ‘Baby, I’m finally succumbing'”) and ambitious aural settings. But if Tillman’s this brilliantly pointed as a paramour, we’re scared to hear the breakup album.