Tim Showalter (Strand of Oaks) Talks Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear

Josh Tillman’s transition from pious to prankster on his latest album makes Tim Showalter contemplate his own fall from grace.

That night in 2001, Josh Tillman came to Bryn Mawr and played two songs, I think.

I had just moved to Philadelphia to attend Eastern University. My friend Lee moved out there from Goshen, and he was basically the coolest guy in town. He said I should move to Philly and go to a weird Christian school, and I listened. If I remember correctly, I was worshiping Jesus to impress a girl back home. Dating is fucking weird in Indiana.

Right after I arrived, I found out that Damien Jurado was playing down the road at a nearby college town. The show was awesome. I think all the dudes who would eventually form Fleet Foxes were in various bands that night. And Damien, as always, delivered an unbelievable show (even if he didn’t play “Ohio” ). Before Damien went on, this dude inconspicuously played two songs. This dude was Father Joshua John Boy Fleet Misty Tillman.

This was back when Josh Tillman was performing as J. Tillman and writing songs with titles such as “A Golden String for Your Nest.” This was before he joined Fleet Foxes as a drummer and singer, before Fleet Foxes became huge, before he left Fleet Foxes and made Fear Fun (2012), his debut as Father John Misty, and before he had an internet hit with that video with the actress from Parks and Recreation in it.

Hey, I’m setting up something, so just chill. Father John Misty’s newest album I Love You, Honeybear is the record that the Talkhouse’s editorial wizard counsel and my publicists emailed me to write about; I feel like I knocked it out of the park with the Spoon write-up, so now I’m nervous as hell to live up to that.

Professor Misty’s latest is a huge record. I’m not going to spend a ton of time on it, though, simply because the Internet will tell you all about it much better than I can. (I recommend Ian Cohen or Steven Hyden, who are basically the Stockton and Malone of modern rock journalism. They will likely call him our generation’s Harry Nilsson.) My writing skills probably peaked at 16 with my paper on John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. I blew some minds by writing about Knowles’ use of water as a metaphor or something… shit, I don’t remember. I was listening to a ton of the Beatles at that time so you know it had to be good.

So, on to Jesus, indie-rock, flannel, feelings, drugs, lack of feelings, growing up, isolation and the eventual emotional retirement.

Listening to this album, Tillman’s second using the Father John pseudonym, I wonder what Baby Misty thought when he played those two songs 14 years ago. There was something so innocent about that time in music. It might be too soon to get nostalgic, but I really believed in that music when it happened. Tillman was writing a lot of great songs then. I hope he doesn’t hate them all. “Firstborn” is a killer song, just killer. There was a whole legion of us who bought in. We grew the hair, beards, read Jimmy McDonough’s newly released Neil Young biography Shakey, got stoned a lot, wondered why the Rapture was selling out shows and we weren’t, and mostly just felt a lot of feelings. I recently YouTubed some old J. Tillman videos and saw almost the same person I was at the time: an earnest dude, duding out on his acoustic.

For the past few years, I’ve done everything I can to run away from that guy and so has Brother Tillman. Thinking about some of my early shows, I can understand why I lasted in that #feels folk scene for so long. It’s fucking cozy. Your goal is to make living rooms feel like concerts and concerts feel like living rooms. You put some Christmas lights around your merch table to highlight your hand-numbered, hand-stamped CD-Rs.

Then something happened. In my case, the spiritual, stoned hikes turned into a massive pain-pill problem. The dimly lit mulled wine parties with Sandy Bull quietly (and I mean quietly) on the speakers turned into glasses of vodka and hoping that you break 100 “likes” on your fucking Instagram post. Dude, the orcs were once elves… THE ORCS WERE ONCE ELVES.

The same guy who once earnestly used Bible allusions is now nonchalantly singing about finding almost-dead girls in his house. I went from comparing lovers to snow and somehow morphed into a Lemmy Kilmister lookalike fumbling his way through guitar shreds. Maybe we broke up with the myth or maybe we just began to believe in a new one.

My new myth is somewhere between Andrew W.K. and Randy the Ram’s final speech in The Wrestler. Dr. Tilldawg is much smarter than I am, however, and Father Misty might just be playing us all the fool. I fucking hope not. Actually, I don’t think so. There is a heartbreaking, woozy logic to his recent work. Fear Fun is one of my favorite records of the past few years. It soundtracked the death of something and the birth of a new life — harnessed nihilism perhaps?

But I Love You, Honeybear is its own beast. It’s hyper-reality. The Castanedian mescaline trips have worn off and Misty found himself a wife. It’s a lot easier to fathom the world ending when you don’t care about anything. But now he loves a woman and has become even more aware that the ship is sinking. That’s why this record is almost hard to listen to. It’s exceptionally composed and written but it bums me out in ways that I’m not ready to understand. Some of the harshest, gut-punch lyrics are delivered with unnerving calm. “I grow more disappointing to you as my beauty warps and fades/And I suspect you feel the same,” he croons on “Bored in the USA.” It’s like Dean Martin announcing the Hindenburg disaster.

Real quick, the Adderall just wore off, and I found some fossilized weed to take the edge off (aka the Fear Fun effect). It’s not working, so I’m switching to beer. Speaking of Instagram, I just learned what the “#” symbol means, and I found a whole treasure trove of pictures where I look slightly plumper than a pre-kaboom Hindenburg. Would Father Johnny have a different effect if he didn’t look so damn good? What if late-era Chris Farley was singing “The Ideal Husband?” Are those baby blues just lubrication for some of the most human lines written since Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks?

I suck at marriage. I suck at being a friend. My new Tim myth has sold a lot more records than sepia-toned Tim did. The same goes for Tillman. But what am I left with? I’m left drunkenly listening to Fleet Foxes and agreeing that all snowflakes aren’t the same. I hated that first Fleet Foxes record when it came out in 2008. I was too busy tattooing my way out of the Nick Drake cocoon I’d been living in for years. Now, for some reason, it’s plucking all my heart strings. I might be trying to bribe my way back into that cozy living room. I Love You, Honeybear is the equivalent of Googling Kate Upton bikini pics and then somehow finding your way onto a site where people are pissing on one another. How the fuck did it all get here?

I texted Damien Jurado to see if it actually was Josh Tillman who played that show. He wasn’t sure. It might have been. It doesn’t matter. Because this write-up has nothing to do with Josh. I’m being completely selfish. I’m using a show I saw 14 years ago as some benchmark of a time in my life that I know I’ll never get back to. Misty Misty won’t ever get back to that show. We’re never gonna find that living room again. Twitter and pills fucked up that whole dream.

Recently I’ve had the TV show Evening Shade stuck in my head. My Grandma Alma used to watch it on Saturday nights when we would stay over. My Grandma Alma only saw the most innocent side of me. She was an angel. I always wonder what her sweet North Carolina accent would’ve said about my skull tattoos. Why isn’t she here anymore?

In a weird way, I hope Father John Misty chooses not to release another record. I Love You, Honeybear feels like the closing credits to something we all cherished. Our grandmas aren’t with us, drugs are more powerful, our spouses think we’re fucking crazy, we’ve tit-sucked the internet dry, and we all will never be as happy as when we hand-numbered those CD-Rs.

You won, Father J. You sent the last telegraph on the Titanic, and it read:

“That iceberg is hilarious.”

Tim Showalter performs as Strand of Oaks. His new album HEAL is available now via Dead Oceans. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.