Father John Misty: Chloë and the Next 20th Century (Sub Pop) – review

Father John Misty

Chloë and the Next 20th Century

Sub Pop

Apr 08, 2022
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Before adopting his loveably irreverent alter ego Father John Misty, Josh Tillman was a bare bones folk doomer, a relatively unknown Fleet Foxes sideman writing dreary albums with morbid titles such as Cancer and Delirium and generally not having a very good time. As Father John Misty, he’s transformed into one of the most unique voices in modern music, balancing his personal bloodletting with acerbic wit and social observations both sharp and humorous, sometimes even downright funny. It was an inherently theatrical transition too; from a chair-core nothing-but-an-acoustic-guitar to serenading audiences while dancing as though an octopus in a washing machine.

So in a sense, embracing the sounds of musical theater isn’t much of a left turn. After all, Pure Comedy, his sprawling 2017 socio-political satire, was initially planned to be a musical. His new album, Chloë and the Next 20th Century, is a variety show, a series of vignettes orbiting around a bygone era. For his first trick, Tillman explores new waters on “Chloë”—jazz. More specifically, the muted trumpets and luxurious orchestration of swanky show tune jazz, drawing from the same well as old-timey Broadway shows such as South Pacific and Guys and Dolls. Here we meet Chloë: the titular “borough socialist” and love interest who takes her own life at her 31st birthday party.

Tillman pulls from a wealth of old world influences: there’s James Taylor folk on “Goodbye Mr. Blue,” ABBA extravagance on “Q4” (maybe it’s just the harpsichord that conjures up visions of “Fernando”), João Gilberto bossa nova on “Olvidado (Otro Momento).” Go to his Spotify artist page and you’ll find “Father John Misty’s Father John Misty Playlist” (humorously captioned “Get hooked on the freshest indie”), an eclectic mix including Louis Armstrong, Henry Mancini, Fred Astaire, The Louvin Brothers, Gene Simmons, a David Lynch voiced singing monkey, and Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” (underrated banger).

His compositions substitute his typical melodic immediacy for a slower approach, taking his time developing these songs and the stories they contain. Sometimes, they develop wonderfully, such as the gentle sway across various instrumental passages on “Funny Girl.” Sometimes, they don’t, such as the overly-melodramatic “Kiss Me,” the kind of hyper-sentimental schlock he worked so hard to avoid on 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear. Chloë and the Next 20th Century basks in romance, both those tepid and strong. On “We Could Be Strangers,” he posits that “no one’s ever really better off alone.” On “Goodbye Mr. Blue,” an ex-couple mourns the death of their cat not just as a pet, a symbol for the last remaining vestige of their failed relationship. Beneath the schmaltz of showbiz lies tragedy. “Whatever happened to the girl I knew?” a mournful Tillman croons on the noir tragedy “Buddy’s Rendezvous.” “In the wasteland, come up short and end up on the news.”

Produced by longtime partner Jonathan Wilson, Chloë and the Next 20th Century sounds fantastic. The sound is incredibly clean and detailed. Tillman’s soothing tenor has a warmth to it, emotive and weighty, reverbed as though singing in a cathedral. Recorded separately, Drew Erickson’s lush orchestra arrangements soar; the dynamics in the horns and strings are something to behold. The whole record feels alive, like a pit band supporting a Broadway crooner.

And yet, despite all the extravagance, something’s missing. This is his first release since God’s Favorite Customer hit the shelves four years ago. It was perhaps his most introspective album yet; a near break in persona that saw Tillman pouring his hear out on some of his most folksy tunes under the Father John Misty name. By comparison, Chloë feels distant; nothing here is explicitly personal to Tillman, nor are any of his observations particularly revelatory. His lyrics, usually so playful and lucid, are dense and poetic. The densest track is the closer, “The Next 20th Century,” a foreboding composition punctuated with an intense burst of electric guitar and unsettling minor string arrangements. What does a Nazi wedding band, Val Kilmer, and the boondocks of Egypt have to do with one another? Who knows? At least the finale provides us with some answers: “I don’t know about you,” he sings. “But I’ll take the love songs/And give you the future in exchange.”

Tillman is perfectly fine mining the past. And so he does. He’s a curator, after all, wearing his influences on his sleeve, sometimes a little too much. But while Chloë and the Next 20th Century doesn’t quite measure up to the best of his impressive catalogue, lacking in some of the more unique traits that make those albums so special, even a slightly weaker Father John Misty album is still pretty damn good. (www.fatherjohnmisty.com)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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