Three songs into Father John Misty’s newest album, “I Love You, Honeybear,” I had to double-check my Spotify app to make sure I hadn’t accidentally started a radio session. It sounded like Josh Tillman was singing, sure. But the music had almost nothing in common with the sound Tillman has curated in his short stint at the helm of his Father John Misty moniker.
“True Affection,” the third song on Tillman’s new album, is a stark diversion from his vagabond sound. The looping guitar and shaman-like drums are replaced with glassy synthesizers and studio-made drum patterns, and the lyrics are straightforward and basically romantic. Where has the dry, sarcastic man from Father John Misty’s first album gone?
Luckily he’s still here, interspersed throughout a sophomore record that brings just enough fresh ideas to Misty’s sound without spoiling what made his first outing, 2012’s “Fear Fun,” such a blast.
The new flares of instrumentation keep listeners on their toes, eschewing the idea that this album would just be a sequel to “Fear Fun.” Beyond the synthetic sound of “True Affection,” the skittering electric guitar on “Strange Encounter” and the dour piano on “Bored in The USA” add extra dimensions to Misty’s soundtrack.
Tillman’s command over the guitar is in full force on a number of the songs, but he displays his chops on “Strange Encounters,” a dark, swampy track with a pair of electric guitars running in the second half. The tone of Tillman’s guitar brings Nels Cline’s riffs to mind, unpredictable and yet right in line with the melody.
The melodies, of course, remain as unnatural and uncanny as they were on the first album. Tillman has a knack for stretching conventional four-bar verses into five-bar verses, derailing, for just a second, the listener’s expectations about what music in the 21st century should sound like. By the midway point of the record, the listener is used to Tillman’s diversions and subtle interjections when he wants to clarify a storytelling point or add a down note to an otherwise glimmering chorus.
As far as lyrical content goes, yes, this record is more straightforward and far less grandiosely abstract. But Tillman retains his dry humor and biting sarcasm — he transitions from the earnest “True Affection” to “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.,” a spectacularly droll tale of a one-night stand that turns into a relationship with a woman he can’t stand. He nitpicks her most obnoxious traits, like the overuse of the word “literally,” and doubts that she knows what the word “malaprop” means.
Later, on highlight “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” he reams a man trying to hit on his wife at a bar, explaining that his better half shouldn’t be subjected to his cliched lines and tells him to move along. He may be in love and not afraid to tell you, but he’s still Josh Tillman, surveyor of the annoying and critic of the uncultured, and he’s one of the best storytellers in modern music. He’s a journalist’s ideal songwriter, always intent on detailing the minutiae in his stories.
The lyrics, along with Tillman’s continued affinity for strummed acoustic guitars, grand pianos and unnatural melodies, lets previous listeners identify with the Misty sound they grew so fond of on the first album.
While remaining sturdily in its wheelhouse, “Honeybear” hints at Tillman’s listeners that Misty won’t be a docile project. The growth from the first album to the second is subtle but poignant, like the shift in his lyrics. From here, there’s essentially no limit for Father John Misty’s evolution. And if the next step is as artfully crafted as this one was, the change will be a welcome one.