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Father John Misty and the Zen of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

On 'I Love You, Honeybear,' Josh Tillman is bringing ambivalence back.

When Pitchfork named “Bored in the USA” one of the 100 best tracks of 2014, they predicted Father John Misty’s accompanying full-length I Love You, Honeybear would inspire “unreadable thinkpieces.” The album came out this week, and so here’s an insufferable thinkpiece for you: This record is the anti-thinkpiece.

We live in a media culture dominated by strained earnestness, showy quirkiness, and ham-fisted white liberal statement-making. Everyone needs a #brand, everyone needs to stand for something, and everyone needs to have an opinion. Thinkpieces generate attention by doing all of the above; they strain for credulity and beg people to take them seriously. We are all living, breathing thinkpieces.

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But what ever happened to ambivalence?

And why can’t the answer to that question just simply be: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ?

That delightfully apathetic emoticon—known as “Shruggie”—has become a social media symbol for ennui in the face of all the above self-aggrandizement. It also serves as the go-to proxy for fuck if I know responses to daily absurdities in the news.

For the sake of this steaming hot take, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ serves as a stand-in for how Father John Misty—the alter-ego of bearded singer-songwriter Josh Tillman—treats his own aesthetic purpose on Honeybear: He refuses to take his words too seriously; he avoids being prescriptive or anthemic, opting instead for descriptive and subtle. (And it’s all a hit with the critics.)

Self-promoting public figures, ladder-climbing narcissists, cynical professionals, and neurotic perfectionists (like this very scribe) could learn a thing or two from ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

In the opening title track, we're introduced to Misty’s loving relationship despite darkness—his struggle with depression, father issues, global crises, etc. “Good luck fingering oblivion,” he snarks at proverbial neighbors on their judgmental high horse, and then, channeling a postmodern Springsteen, says, “We’re getting out now while we can.”

This isn’t some uplifting runaway love story; it’s a description of facing down the abyss of existence with a knowing glance, a crooked smile, and shoulders shrugging. Why waste so much time with fire-and-brimstone when you can just invest in human intimacy? “Everything is doomed, and nothing will be spared,” Misty ultimately shrugs, "but I love you, honeybear."

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Much of the album concentrates on Misty’s sexual exploits and general bad behavior—on the internet, we only get to see ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ as a set of arms but, via Honeybear, we get a glimpse of what goes on from the waist down. The "sarcastic, overcompensating asshole,” as he described himself to Grantland’s Sean Fennessey, comes off here as an effortlessly cool yet self-loathing ladies' man who numbly searches for some human connection, or more excess to quell the strain of excess, or for some goddamn inner silence.

That’s not to say Misty is a self-destructive nihilist. He’s actually more like a shaman with wry humor, having experienced his own phases of naiveté, boredom, and self-righteousness. Having been through it all, he learned that “being a tortured artist is meaningless,” as he told Fennessey. And so he can only be himself.

Yet just like how George Harrison drove off in a fancy sports car after gifting a dying friend a statuette of Ganesh—a Hindu deity associated with inner peace—Misty is full of comic contradictions. After all, as he sings, “No one ever knows the real you and life is brief.” Setting such sardonic observations to deceptively sunny melodies and shimmering orchestration only further cements that enigma.

The great irony, too, is how his standout tracks will likely end up on Spotify playlists next to a gaggle of overly earnest bards, stomp-and-clap “whoa-oh” artists with thrift store-bought personae, and predictably twee dudes with luscious locks eagerly mimicking their favorite 70s sounds.

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But what does Misty care? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ He knows it's all part of the act. We’re all part of the act.

That sort of attitude permeates FJM’s infamous pre-release prank website, which includes a full album stream in godawful, kitschy MIDI form. A clean-shaven Tillman poses for the camera with an insufferable guru’s clasped hands, spouting bullshit tech-speak. He's mocking the concept of streaming an album to promote it, while engaging in the tactic at the same time—yeah, it wasn’t an actual stream, but it achieved the same thing: promoting the record.

But it was done with a giddy ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Everyone’s gotta make a living somehow.

Alas, Misty stands before the digital tidal wave with a gigantic smirk, middle fingers out, and shoulders up. On the electronic-tinged “True Affection,” he wonders about the farce of techno-communication—a sentiment he explored on his own Instagram feed with hilariously absurd screenshots from roleplaying video game Second Life.

And on “Bored in the USA,” he tackles the tedium of modern living with a similarly wiseass demeanor. “Save me, white Jesus,” he dryly jokes, laughing at you for taking his American Beauty-esque ramblings about middle-class existence too seriously. And then comes the canned laughter to emphasize just how hard Misty’s shrugging right now.

His Late Show with David Letterman performance of the track included a self-playing piano and a live audience full of tourists clearly scared to chuckle along with the canned laughter—perhaps a taunt at those who don’t understand that even serious topics like the mortgage crisis can be funny because, well… fuck it.

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Perhaps the closest Misty comes to an actual declarative statement is on the subject of love. “Sentimentality brutalizes emotion,” he told Grantland, and so his triumphant love song—“I Went to the Store One Day”—is a mixture of honest sappiness and the sort of winking inside-jokery that only two individual lovers could recognize. “Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years,” he sings at one point, acknowledging that not all feelings need to have words.

The lesson here is that love isn’t some grand overture we see in popular media, it can be sloppy, terrifying, and completely based on coincidence. In Misty's case, that means falling in love all because he went to the store one day.

Of course, we’re probably reading too far into Misty's efforts. What would a hot take be without a mountainous sense of importance placed on a mole hill? In reality, the need for endless “commentary on the commentary”—as he describes in “Holy Shit”—is moot in the face of this “atom bomb” inside all of us.

If Tillman sees this piece, he’ll likely think something along the lines of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ because, as he said, this album is not some grand statement or “prescription for living." It’s just a guy expressing and laughing at his own life experiences through song; and we’re all left to squint at it for some deeper meaning when, really, there’s no meaning at all.

Andrew Kirell is editor-in-chief of Mediaite and is clearly just a little bored in the USA. Follow him on - @andrewkirell.