Father John Misty (AKA Joshua Tillman) has carved a place for himself as rock’s favourite misanthrope, and one gets the impression he delights in the moniker. His latest, Chloë and the Next 20th Century, sees him get a bit more philosophical and return more to the storytelling and character sketches that helped make his name.
Tillman’s breakthrough release was doubtlessly 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, a sterling collection of art pop songs indebted to 60s folk and pop, balancing the smooth proto-AOR sounds of artists like Nilsson against Tillman’s acerbic lyrics. It’s a high watermark that he’ll likely never reach again, but the ensuing years saw a few experiments in 2017’s sweeping Pure Comedy and 2018’s more focused God’s Favourite Customer, in which the man and persona merged in Tillman’s most personal outing to date.
Chloë and the Next 20th Century is therefore backward-looking in more ways than one. It first sees Tillman/Misty (the man and character are often one in the same) take a backseat in favour of more stylised storytelling, even if they do tie back to a central, rather cynical protagonist. The album is also literally a step back – in time – to an era of music that predates the 60s for which Tillman is so fond. Here, Tillman jumps into the trumpets and swooping strings of pre-war Jazz Age productions.
It’s immediately evident in opener Chloë, a jaunty jazz number that sounds ripped straight from a Golden Era Hollywood picture with its old-school horns and big band backing. It tells a familiar story of its socialite lead, with whom the protagonist is so enamoured that he ignores her faults. It’s a funny little jaunt, but its throwbacks come on too strong and it feels a tad gimmicky. Unfortunately this is a fate that befalls most tunes on this album if the listener doesn’t have an ear for pre-war jazz and show tunes. For instance deeper cut Olvidado (Otro Memento) sees Tillman try his hand at bossa nova. It falls flat, his voice poorly suited to the style and the lyrics never extending beyond a style-over-substance homage to the form. Likewise, Kiss Me (I Loved You) is incredibly lush instrumentally and features interesting vocal effects, but at its heart it is a rote showtime ballad whose instrumental sappiness renders its lyrical subject matter obsolete.
Buddy’s Rendezvous is an interesting twist on the women-in-peril dynamic, delivered from a suitably I-know-best male perspective (the father). It feels like a second-rate Lana del Rey track and, sure enough, she leant vocals to her own version of this which can be found on an extended cut of the album. Funny Girl then mines similar male-observer territory, turning darker as it deals with its protagonist’s King-of-Comedy style stalker relationship with a celebrity. The lyrics have their strong points but unfortunately the song is wrapped up in a languid, thoroughly boring melody. Q4 is another lush but forgettable tune, and its lyrics regarding two sisters vying for publishing rights are too obscure to be engaging.
This leaves a few stronger tunes, a few of which mine the soft rock style which fits Tillman’s voice like a glove. Goodbye Mr. Blue essentially cribs Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ but Tillman varies the source material enough to create a lush, catchy winner. The lyrics are excellent, about the death of a cat and the implication that, had he passed earlier, a romance may have been kept intact. Everything But Her Love is a Beatles-esque, mildly psychedelic track with stronger hooks and some good imagery.
This leaves the album closer and best track, The Next 20th Century, which is worth the price of entry alone. It opens with a bossa nova rhythm and menacing horn accompaniment. Its turns through different rhythms and the unexpected blasts of distortion make this one of the more epic and experimental tunes in Tillman’s catalogue. Its lyrics throw out some excellent imagery, placing this as a self-aware, slightly absurd rumination on the good and bad that the century had to offer. Any song that waxes philosophical and pairs romantic come-ons against tangents about Val Kilmer is a winner. Yet it ends on a strikingly positive note with the unforgettable lines of “Come build your burial grounds/ On our burial grounds/ But you won’t kill death that way/ I don’t know ‘bout you/ Bit I’ll take the love songs/ And give you the future in exchange.”
Overall, this is an admirable project by Father John Misty that ultimately falls flat due to too many dull songs. The stylistic choice makes sense, but Tillman is simply much better suited to the lush folk/soft pop style that got him on his pedestal in the first place. This is a strong and heartfelt attempt, but one of his weakest.