Father John Misty Continues to Grapple With Love and Existential Dread on ‘Chloë and the Next 20th Century’
If we were living in “the next 20th century,” we would currently be in our roaring ‘20s, and singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman accordingly begins his latest album, “Chloë and the Next 20th Century,” with a 1920s-style big band jazz number. The artist best known as Father John Misty has always been a bit of a mischievous provocateur, so it’s no major surprise that he starts his new record with a major surprise. The swinging sounds of muted brass introduce the eponymous Chloë, “a borough socialist” who “insists there’s not much more to it / Than drinks with a certain element / Of downtown art criticism.” To piece together the title of the album, we must skip to the final track, “The Next 20th Century,” where a vestige of the jazz spirit endures faintly in cadences that now trudge along, obscured by eerie synths. Midway, there’s a torrent of distorted guitars, unlike anything else on the album, and worlds away from the gleeful strut of the opener. Tillman advances further into the bleak terrain he visited on his 2015 single, “Bored In the USA,” bemoaning, “None of us here / Will ever see the promised land / None of us here will be there for / Childhood’s end.” Amid these prospects, he reasons, “I don’t know ‘bout you / But I’ll take the love songs / And give you the future in exchange.” Cutting back to the opener, we find Tillman pleaing, “Chloë / Please don’t ever change.” Even if sung in jest, the phrasing sets a precedent that informs much of the content to follow. “Chloë and the Next 20th Century” is, at large, about clinging to love in the face of cyclical oppression. If this marks a left turn, it’s a natural outgrowth from Tillman’s trajectory. The former Fleet Foxes drummer’s critical solo breakthrough, 2015’s “I Love You, Honeybear,” was a work of grand romantic gestures and fearless vulnerability, revealing a creeping existential dread that escalated on 2017’s “Pure Comedy,” and left Tillman battling delusions and endeavoring to make sense of humanity as a whole on 2018’s, “God’s Favorite Customer.” The followup finds Tillman serving up his signature blend of sincerity and irony, taking some unanticipated musical turns, and turning out another weighty, enigmatic exploration.
One song in, ““Goodbye Mr. Blue,” finds Tillman reflecting, “When the last time was our last time / Should’ve told you that the last time comes too soon.” Country-tinged folk stylings befit the old crooner sentimentality of the topic at hand, as the death of a pet cat triggers a reminiscence of a relationship that dissolved and left the speaker as its sole custodian. The content grows increasingly mopey on “Kiss Me (I Loved You),” a tender, string-laden plea of nostalgic desperation that derives its power from its unabashed vulnerability, with Tillman longing, “Kiss mе / Like long ago.” “Everything But” is a charmingly halcyon waltz that finds Tillman musing, “She must be a dream ’cause you never wake up.” The instrumental stylings on the album lean heavily toward pre-1980s arrangements, and the evocative richness of the classic sounds contributes significantly to the songs’ emotive power. “Buddy’s Rendezvous” finds Tillman at the titular haunt, “telling the losers and old timers / How good I did with you,” as a lone horn offers a running commentary amid rosy strings.
At one point in the same song, as Tillman’s stream of consciousness finds him addressing an old flame, he protests, “What’s the fun in getting everything you want?” He promptly backtracks, “I wouldn’t know, but look baby, you should try / Forget that lefty shit your mom drilled in your mind.” In case the sarcasm here isn’t obvious, we might look back to Tillman’s 2016 performance at the Newport Folk Festival, during which he revealed that he had been offered $250,000 to cover the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” for a Chipotle ad. In Tillman’s words, “I was like, cool, so then I could just buy, like, two Cadillacs and crash them together. I don’t want your fucking burrito money.” This attitude makes its way into the album in various priceless offhand snippets. On lead single, “Funny Girl,” another lovelorn retrospective that recalls the songcraft of Elvis Costello compositions like “Almost Blue,” we find Tillman addressing a Hollywood hopeful, acknowledging, “Funny girl, your schedule’s pretty crazy / Doing interviews for the new live action Cathy.” The notion of yielding romantic hopes to such priorities — a film adaptation of the “Cathy” comic strip — is just the type of hilariously loaded, obscure reference that makes Tillman a songwriter of the highest rank.
Of course, such artistry often goes unappreciated, much like that of the writer whom Tillman depicts in “Q4,” whose work lies neglected on her editor’s desk while “she must watch roses get thrown at less / Oh, the indignity.” The comically outlandish, harpsichord-heavy number is perfect for poking fun at the absurdity of art as commerce. Imagining a publication that rushes to capitalize on the holiday season, Tillman sings, “It was just the thing for their Q4 / ‘Deeply funny’ was the rave refrain.” In a subsequent chorus, he asks, “What’s “deeply funny” mean anyhow?” For the record, it’s fair to say that Tillman’s latest album is deeply funny.
On the winsome Paul McCartney-esque “Only a Fool,” Tillman reasons, “The wisdom of the ages / From Gita to Abraham / Was written by smitten, lonely sages / Too wise to ever take a chance.” The lyrics provide context for the counterintuitive chorus of the subsequent track, “We Could Be Strangers,” in which Tillman declares, “We could be strangers for one night longer,” then offers in explanation, “’Cause no one’s really better off… Alone.” In Tillman’s thrillingly warped world, the romantic proposition is to remain strangers – as intimacy inevitably ends in solitude. As Tillman sees it, history is bound to repeat itself. Over the bossa nova sway of “Olvidado (Otro Momento),” he sings a Spanish chorus with lines that translate to “Forget it / The destiny decides.”
In the end, on the second titular track, we find Tillman navigating the soundscapes of his imagination with the aid of cultural artifacts, among them a “wall-length mirror” of actor Val Kilmer, circa 1995’s “Batman Forever.” Again, the chosen references are priceless. Regarding Kilmer, Tillman reckons, “I’m sure he’s someone else now… Maybe he’s Yankee Zulu… and maybe Mac the Conqueror.” In an especially memorable image, Tillman reports, “I’ve seen him wearing aviators and a black baseball hat / Stalking airports ‘cross the bardo, quiet as a wildcat.” One can’t help but wonder what Tillman himself would be doing in the bardo, that Buddhist transitional state between death and rebirth. After all, Tillman has openly scrutinized the forms that his persona as Father John Misty has taken along the years. At one point, he likened it to “a sarcastic Michael Buble.” In light of the big band stylings that open the new album, it seems that spirit is still at play — as is the vulnerable romantic that emerged on “I Love You, Honeybear,” the jaded cynic and persevering empath that battled it out on “God’s Favorite Customer.” As it turns out, “the Next 20th Century” has found Tillman reincarnated in forms as unexpected as swing and bossa nova. Still, it rings like the natural evolution of an ever-enigmatic lyrical force.
“Chloë and the Next 20th Century” releases April 8 on Apple Music.