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Father John Misty Finds Love in the Age of Narcissism

Father John Misty's feeling better these days.

Father John Misty's feeling better these days.

Josh Tillman doesn't see much good in this world.

Tillman, who records under the name Father John Misty, isn't shy to elucidate his despairingly nihilistic outlook on life. He believes that existence is inherently meaningless, and his 2012 egocentric jaunt Fear Fun is predicated on this bleak worldview.

Yet somehow the crestfallen skeptic has fallen in love.

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The forthcoming I Love You, Honeybear (out Tuesday on Sub Pop Records) isn't as saccharine as the name suggests, but the album is still a romantic benediction. It finds Tillman, or some conflation of Tillman and his trumped-up avatar, waking from the solipsistic stupor of Fear Fun and succumbing to romance.

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"I don't think that there is any meaning in the universe," Tillman tells Gimme Noise flatly. "I don't think that love exists out there. I think that these are all human creations. Our mandate is to create meaning."

On Fear Fun, Tillman fulfilled this mandate by getting strung out and plumbing the masculine nadir. It was cheeky and raucous, if not a bit Freudian, but the whole record comes from a place of what he calls "pure, mindless skepticism."

Fear Fun was conceived in the vacuum after Tillman left his gig drumming for Fleet Foxes and camped out in Laurel Canyon with a sack of mushrooms. He was looking to depart from the hushed, overwrought tone of the seven LPs he'd released as J. Tillman, and he succeeded by leaning hard on psilocybin and satire.

Both are good for obscuring the ugly truth.

"Last time around, the vitality in the songs was the wink-wink, nudge-nudge aspect to it, but that's not where the vitality is in this set of songs," he says. "The vitality is in how vulnerable and how ugly it is...The way that I'm portrayed in this album is pretty ugly about 60 percent of the time."

I Love You, Honeybear, and Myself Too

Honeybear is by no means an earnest album, but it cuts a lot closer to Tillman's true self. Tillman, a confessed narcissist, divulges much on the record -- everything from his hereditary struggle with depression ("I Love You, Honeybear") to his seething vanity ("The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.") to his latent elitism ("Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)"). Right down the the cover art depicting him as a beatified toddler, Honeybear is an articulation of Tillman's insincerity.

And it's deeply -- and uncomfortably -- intimate.

"For a narcissist, to be truly seen is equivalent to shame," he says, "I just wanted to melt into the floor the first few times that I played it for people."

But intimacy is the focus of Honeybear and the germination point for much of the album's humor.

"There's definitely a lot of levity in the album," Tillman says, "I actually think it's funnier than the last album, but I also think humor can be really tragic."

In "Bored in the USA", Honeybear's pithy lead single, Father John Misty unstacks the Russian nesting doll of the tragic humor he sees in the world.

Over the course of the song, he limply decries everything from the housing bubble to the college loan crisis to prescribed impotence, only to be struck down by laughter -- which he calls "the battle cry of the passive." In the end, the titular boredom triumphs.

"Living in that kind of dream creates passivity, and I just see mass passivity," Tillman says, "I see intimacy as a catalyst for transformation, more so than psychedelics or anything else. If you want to know the real fucking truth about yourself, intimacy is going to reveal that. ['Bored in the USA'] is basically saying that, if you expect for meaning to be handed down from culture, money, religion, or politics -- even love -- you're going to get this version of the world that's portrayed in the song."

Within "Holy Shit," Tillman goes as far as to sing, "Love is just an institution based on human frailty." But these are words he no longer believes. Love is anathema to every evil "Bored in the USA" and "Holy Shit" detail.

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Who is Honeybear?

The idea of the reformed lothario is a cliché, but Tillman was not the architect of his own awakening. His wife Emma, the titular honeybear can be thanked for that.

"For love to find us of all people / I never thought it be so simple," Tillman exalts on "I Went to the Store One Day," a song that sweetly recalls the pair's first meeting. In that song, there's a moment where, even though the very idea of love is contrary to his worldview and threatening to his defense mechanisms, Tillman embraces the idea of contradiction.

"I think part of the reason this album was so hard to make is I'm not sure I wanted to part ways with the precedent I'd set last time around," Tillman says. "But Emma, at some point, was like 'look, you just can't be afraid to let these songs be beautiful.'"

SPIN's 2013 profile paints a languid picture of Tillman and Emma -- they stride with their hands in each other's back pockets, sharing sushi and clinging one another on barstools. It's clear that he sees her as sacred. In Honeybear's artwork, she's shown as a heavenly mother cradling a bearded baby.

Emma is the one who sees Tillman as the "horny manchild momma's boy" he is beneath the veneer. At one point, he wonders whether they'll beget the Antichrist together.

Honeybear, their actual lovechild, is well shy of being nefarious, but it is at least cynical and infatuated. After all, in this age of narcissistic abandon, a shared cynicism is as close as it gets to euphoria.

"When I entered into this relationship with Emma, I didn't want that to be seen. The biggest realization for me was 'I'm always going to have [my hangups], but you can relate, and we can be miserable together.'"

A New Outlook

There is a point in Tillman espousing all his baggage and ardour on wax beyond sheer navel gazing.

The absurdity and panache of the Father John Misty persona is certainly still at work. Late last year, he sashayed across Dave Letterman's stage with his foibles proudly in view, and he's since been his goofy sardonic self, serenading Spotify employees and leaking an ultra-low-fi version of the record as a Dadaist protest, but with the release of I Love You, Honeybear, the id/ego circus has taken on a new mission.

Father John Misty is reaching out by acting out. A lack of self-awareness is a diagnosable trait for narcissists, and Honeybear could be therapy for a generation fixated with turning inward.

"If anything, hopefully people can empathize," he say, "A narcissist thinks that their faults are somehow worse than anyone else's faults. When I listen to 'Jealous Man', I think 'thank God this guy was willing to put this out, because I needed someone to demystify their shortcomings.' We all have to demystify this shit if we're ever gonna get anywhere."

Father John Misty. With King Tuff. Saturday, April 4, at First Avenue. Sold Out.

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