Fans of instant gratification may wish to cancel their reservation at the Josh Tillman Motel, for the Marylander’s sophomore release under the Father John Misty moniker is not an easy ride. Persevere though, and those rancid bedsheets turn to golden fleece overnight.
We are left in little doubt, from the eponymous opener, that ‘Pet Sounds’ has been something of a touchstone for ‘I Love You, Honeybear’. What’s more, the evidence here suggests that the Marylander has had ‘Caroline, No’ on a constant loop during its conception. The whole thing smacks of Brian Wilson, with a stately but ever so slightly discordant swathe of strings that somehow elevate it above what initially comes across as a throwaway cutesy ballad.
It’s not immediately apparent, but sex plays a major role here, from the title track’s delightful reference to “mascara, blood, ash and cum” to the more brazen, flagrantly titled ‘When You’re Smiling And Astride Me’. Despite its seedy exterior, the album possesses a playfulness that could charm the chastity belt off the frostiest old sourpuss. Who, after all, could resist prose like “She blackens pages like a Russian romantic, gets down more often than a blow up doll”?
‘Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)’ is unexpectedly reminiscent of The Mavericks, all shuffling polyrhythms and Mariachi horns, and continues the theme of carnal desire with an ominous dark undercurrent (“I want to take you in the kitchen, lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in“). It’s an incredible song and perhaps the album’s knockout punch. It stands to reason then, that Tillman chooses to follow this with his most ambitious, and unusual, track yet…
‘True Affection’ sounds like Marvin Gaye has written a song and had it produced by Animal Collective, full of synth waves and truly soulful falsetto vocals and it takes some effort, but subsequent listens result in some serious ear candy. Fascinating forays into different musical cultures are always welcome, but it’s still something of a relief that our man returns to his roots on the tongue-in-cheek, Rufus Wainwright aping, ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment’. Always striving to hit the listener with an instant impact, the opening gambit here is the sublime “Oh I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man, I mean like a goddamn marching band”. He’s nothing if not self-deprecating, is our Josh.
The formerly mentioned ‘When You’re Smiling And Astride Me’ has the white soul feel of Stephen Stills’ earliest solo albums, certainly no bad thing in itself, but is overshadowed somewhat by Ye Olde Worlde atmosphere of the glorious ‘Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow’. Quite apart from its chronicles of rubber lovers, the production here is nonchalant and innocent, like the soundtrack to a Harold Lloyd feature film. Speaking of production, the man twiddling the knobs here is none other than Laurel Canyon’s man of the moment, Jonathan Wilson, and this becomes glaringly apparent on ‘Strange Encounter’, surely a missed opportunity for the musical director of the next James Bond film.
‘The Ideal Husband’ fair thunders along, rampant and ferocious, and certainly the loudest track Tillman has ever recorded, before the Paul McCartney like single ‘Bored In The USA’ stops you in your tracks, eerily punctuated by the use of canned laughter in what seem to be inappropriate places. It’s an unusual gimmick that shouldn’t work, but somehow enhances the song’s dramatic effect.
‘Holy Shit’ has a startling lyric whose melody could have been penned by Elton John in his ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ phase. Its title should be taken literally (i.e. “religious crap”) and may well be the strongest composition here. It’s testament to how much this album grows on you that, yesterday, while I was drafting this review, I said that this song would have been great if it had a strong enough melody, but having played it for a dozenth time, it’s finally dawned on me that actually, this too, is a remarkable tune.
Closer, ‘I Went To The Store One Day’ returns to Wainwright territory with a sprinkling of Sufjan Stevens circa ‘Illinois’ and acts more as a world weary, regretful epilogue than anything else. Far from an explosive finale, it’s a rather downbeat way to draw the curtain.
In retrospect then, this is a more than worthy follow up to 2012’s ‘Fear Fun’, and while I’ve been well looked after at the Tillman Motel, it took me a while to get used to the furniture. One thing’s for sure though, I’ll be sorry to leave.