There are some albums that you’re told you need to love, and there are albums that you fall in love with without any critical nudging.
Two years ago, I traveled with two reporters and a photographer to Austin to cover South by Southwest. For the 11-hour drive, we easily had more than 2,000 albums at our disposal with our array of laptops, iPhones, and iPods. For several hours, we listened to albums that we should listen to (bands we were covering at SXSW). But during downtimes, personal favorites were the soundtrack of the long drive. And for that entire trip, I think we listened to Father John Misty’s Fear Fun album at least three times.
When it initially dropped, Fear Fun was met with a polite reception from critics. Most reviews fell into the knee-jerk “this is a solo record from former member of “fill in higher profile band name” category. Slowly though, Fear Fun began to amass a cultish adoration thanks to Josh Tillman’s ability to create some instantly catchy hooks (see the funeral dredge of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”) and hard-to-forget lyrics (“O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me”). Three years of positive word of mouth has paid off for Tillman. Months before his follow-up I Love You, Honeybear was released, he unveiled one song on a high-profile performance on David Letterman. And with the exception of Sleater-Kinney’s follow-up, I Love You, Honeybear is a clear frontrunner for the title of “first most anticipated album of 2015″.
The recording environment behind I Love You, Honeybear couldn’t have been more different than its predecessor, at least according to their respective Sub Pop profiles. Fear Fun was recorded during a period of “immobilizing period of depression”. Contrast that with Honeybear, which, according to its bio, is “a concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman” and his relationship with Emma (Tillman married filmmaker/photographer Emma Elizabeth Garr).
Tillman may have found love in real life, but there is still plenty of his resigned heartache permeating through I Love You, Honeybear. “I just love the kind of woman who can walk all over a man / I mean like a goddamn marching band,” Tillman sings in “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”. That song is one of the most immediately catchy things on the album, which only makes the closing line “I obliged later on when you begged me to choke yah” that much more jarring. And on the horn-drenched “Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins)”, Tillman declares his intention “to take you in the kitchen” and “lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”.
Honeybear has many of the hallmarks of an ambitious follow-up. On the aforementioned “Chateau Lobby 4”, a mariachi horn section swells with the chorus. The title track features a lush layering of vocals, accented by hammering percussion. Credit Tillman on Honeybear, while some artists tend to play it safe for a highly-anticipated follow-up, Tillman seems to be determined to use every bit of financial and commercial freedom he’s earned over the past three years to create his own grand statement.
Sadly, there are some times on I Love You, Honeybear where less attention to ambition and more focus on hooks could have helped immeasurably. After an amazingly solid first half, the second half of Honeybear suffers some lag, either because of some tracks have a lack of a memorable hook or chorus (“Strange Encounter”), or experiments that just don’t pan out (see the laugh track on “Bored in the U.S.A.”). On his Sub Pop page, Tillman said he “sang his ass off” on this album. And after five or six listens, you have no doubt he’s telling the truth. But at times, you may find yourself wishing he would do less singing and more surrendering to his more spontaneous, reckless side.
I Love You, Honeybear is a big, ambitious statement that few artists can pull off for a sophomore follow-up to a beloved debut. But unlike Fear Fun, it does ask the listener to meet the artist at least halfway. Like its overall theme of love, Honeybear can be as intoxicating as it is messy. But given the rewards, it’s totally worth the plunge.