Weekend Listening: I Love You, Honeybear by Father John Misty
Album: I Love You, Honeybear by Father John Misty
Released: February 10, 2015 by Subpop Records
Recommended if you like: soulful unaffected musical wanderings of a man in love
Notable tracks: Literally everything except “True Affection” because, in the immortal words of my friend James Wingo when I mentioned I don’t care for that one, “It’s okay, Laura – no one does.”
At the fine arts museum in my city resides the gray sculpture of a woman. Hyper-realistic in her stretch marks and lower back dimples, she stands naked, arms raised against a wall, head leaned into the crooks of her elbows. I used to take students there, students who have lived their whole lives here in the worst of the city, who’ve never been to this museum, any museum, students who’ve spent their lives being so concerned with the basics of food and a home and not being shot they haven’t had much time for things like art. As I walked them through the modern wing, lecturing a bit about textual analysis and how it can be applied not just to fiction, but to nonfiction, art, film, music, conversation, they way the fucking dress even, I led them to this woman. Their assignment was always the same – find something you love or hate, that moves you in some way, and write about why pointing to specific details in the piece that elicit feeling – and as I brought them to her, I would say that this would be my selection and ask what they think.
Inevitably, they called her creepy. The sculpture features doll hair and pubic hair, and this was always called out as unnerving, perverted somehow. Someone would say this is a sculpture of death, Ms. Confer – she’s gray, she’s dead. She looks upset. Take in her cheekbones, the sag of her breasts, the shadow of a hipbone, I would tell them. What is this about?
We would stand there for a while, examining her, letting the shock of a naked woman wear off until some blessed soul would remark upon how lifelike she is, until I could ask about how they think that came to be, and eventually I would ask how long they think it would take to make a such a replication of a person.
I could look at someone for a lifetime and never see her in such precise detail.
The act of looking is, I think, a feminist concern, and that is why I cannot stop listening to Father John Misty’s album I Love You, Honeybear.
Few albums present such self-awareness and consideration as this release. I’ll admit to being hesitant to putting this up during our Girls! Girls! Girls! Month, of flagging this post with that banner, as our artist here isn’t a woman, but in my incessant listening and thinking of this album, and in my belief that feminist concerns are everyone’s concerns, and at what comprises the heart of this album, here I am listening again and writing.
Though an undercurrent of frustration at America, capitalism and the cynicism that feeds this kind of culture, runs throughout, at the heart this album is a full-length declaration of the love FJM feels for his wife, Emma. Nowhere is that love more sweetly felt than in “Chateau Lobby #4,” which I’m hoping to fuck was a belated wedding gift, as he recounts her wedding dress and the note she left the first time she let him stay the night. Open, simple guitar, very chill drums, a couple little horn trills, but never boring, there is an earnest drive behind this song that comes off as almost immature, almost boyish. Honest.
A deeper maturity feels evident in “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” a soulful bluesy ramble which, and perhaps it’s because of the title, calls to my mind the kind of half-real dream thoughts I have when I’m sleeping with someone I’m in love with. There’s no need to fear me, he sings first, cutting right into a fear common inside relationships – if I let you see me, if I am myself, what will you do? Will you take it, laugh with me, love me even when I’m the shittiest, when I’m lying to myself? Whereas we get the excitement of newer love and the wedding with “Chateau Lobby #4,” here the kind of intimacy and love that settles down inside itself is on display.
The lines That’s how you live free – truly see and be seen summarize the entirety of this album, actually. Most of the songs on this album focus on her, or his love for her, but what transcends them from sappy radio ballads to something I’m fully obsessed with is the clarity with which he sees her. With the exception of maybe one, two songs, his image of Emma ghosts the tracks; family photographs and handwritten notes line the inside of the album, just in case we were wondering if she were a figment. To be clear, she is not present, but his understanding of her; Emma’s voice isn’t here, but that’s not the point. Alongside his open portrayal of her is a clear picture of how he sees himself as well, and that self-image seems true and unromanticized.
At no point does he obfuscate his awareness of her, either; the first, and title, track “I Love You Honeybear” throws us headfirst into the intimacy of his emotion, and we are never left to catch a breath. One of the most beautiful things about FJM’s work is the pairing of lyricism with sound, and with this track, as with others, it’s clear that sound was created around the poems of his songs. Sweeping violin, round, slow drums, little threads of plinky piano pile up on top of one another to usher us into the song, into the album, and when his smooth voice starts calling to his wife it feels voyeuristic, almost.
Truly being seen, though, means splaying open one’s faults, too, and in the chaotic track “The Ideal Husband” FJM runs through a litany of bullshit he’s done or lives out. Not calling his family after his grandma dies, sleeping all day and lying about it, resenting people that he loves – it’s played out here with a jangly, crashing piano, drums, guitar all pounding in unison, relentless throughout. That this track appears after some of the more loving songs makes sense, I think, because questioning one’s romantic ability before a marriage is a sitcom; questioning oneself in dips that run the span of a relationship is real.
Truly seeing and being seen is a feminist concern because women are so consistently told that doing so will be overbearing, unwelcome, disgusting, immoral. So many mainstream magazines and articles and books and songs and movies that are “for” women build on the foundation of hiding; our culture perpetuates the idea of the true self being shameful, and though I can’t speak to any male experience, I imagine it’s probably similar. Being invited, then, into this man’s marriage, his disillusionment with consumerist culture, feels like a gift; looking around and seeing the contradictions and failures and beauty all wrapped together and told bluntly, straightforward but gorgeously, feels almost like a fucking miracle.
On the evening before my 33rd birthday, just last weekend, my closest friends in Richmond gathered at my home to celebrate another year of my life. For a moment, as I stood downstairs with a bamboo cane in my hand and a paisley scarf tied around my eyes while I swung at an avocado piñata Catherine made and filled with the worst airplane bottles of booze she could find, I felt too many pairs of eyes on my back and got nervous. When I shoved that scarf up to see a balcony strung with lights, full of people who love me and are loved by me, I let go of that pointless anxiety. Being seen by these people isn’t a hindrance, but a mindset I strive for; one of the things students say when I catch them impersonating me in the halls before class is I don’t apologize for my life, so stop writing apologies for yours – it’s boring. If it’s a true thing to have a love of your life, then I have found him, and I move through loving him by being as honestly myself as I can. Listening to this album, reading through all the bits that accompany it, function as a manifest of someone else’s experience in trying to do that as well as he can, but luckily for all of us it’s beautiful in addition to being true.