Tillman is a wordy writer. At times, the music on Honeybear almost acts as a palliative to his lyrics, blunting the edges and keeping the mood friendly enough to get you from one excoriating piece of satire to the next. Fans of the Beatles and Sufjan Stevens will find that songs from Honeybear sit comfortably in their Spotify « Mountain Drive » playlists; fans of stand-up comedy will find the album as thorough, sad and bitterly cathartic as any good hour-long special. For all his poetic undercurrents, Tillman is a showman that way: He knows how to get his message across in a form people can clap to.
Honeybear is conflicted music that leaves me with conflicted feelings. Tillman is funny, but his humor is driven by meanness and self-loathing; he’s sweet, but he can’t manage to say anything nice without smothering it in jokes, like a dog compulsively trying to cover up its own shit. He opens the album by forecasting the apocalypse but most of the time comes off as the kind of mystic who gives up and embraces the debauchery, the patrician in some yoga sex ring, a bimbo Nero who fiddles while Los Angeles burns and occasionally gets sidetracked gloating about how hot his wife is. Yes, he gets high, but he never really leaves the dirty, dirty ground.
In the end, his sincerity is a sharper weapon than his humor. Honeybear’s last couple of songs in particular— »Holy Shit » and « I Went to the Store One Day »—arrive at the strange clarity people sometimes feel in the wake of drug trips, where life’s simplest lessons are suddenly presented to you, quiet and nude: Love people, stay open, be real. Admittedly there are an infinite number of barriers to these ideas, not least of which nobody seems to agree what the words « love, » « open, » and « real » actually mean, but my guess is that Tillman would acknowledge that failing isn’t as important as never trying at all.
Despite attempts to draw lines between himself and his persona, the story of Honeybear is at least in part a story of Tillman’s own recent marriage, which seems to have slowed his pace and made him reconsider questions of intimacy and closeness, the way marriage can do. The album ends with what were apparently his first words to his wife: « Seen you around. What’s your name? »—a question asked without editorializing. A few lines earlier, he had us at the brink of their deaths. « Insert here, » he sings plaintively, « a sentiment re: Our golden years. » I’ve chewed on that moment for a while now, feeling alternately as though it was a cop out and as though his point might be that trying to compress his and his wife’s future into one line would be corny and disrespectful. At least I know he means it when he says he isn’t sure what to say.