These songs are bound together by their musical arrangements, presented as rightful heirs to a lost catalogue of great American songwriting
Josh Tillman’s fifth album as Father John Misty is a rather more enigmatic offering than his previous four. Although the Misty stage name might be a front, it has never felt like a veil: Tillman has rarely shied away from heartfelt lyrics, warts and all auto-portraiture and the occasional smattering of self-mockery. From the LA acid trip of his debut Father John Misty album, Fear Fun (2012) via the devastating marital love letter of I Love You, Honeybear (2015) and the existential chamber pop of Pure Comedy (2017) to the hotel room breakdown of God’s Favorite Customer (2018), Tillman has always bared heart, soul and mind.
Chloë And The Next 20th Century feels like a deviation of sorts. It’s far less rooted in specific places, people or themes. Instead, what binds the album together is its musical arrangement: it’s produced to perfection by Tillman and his longstanding collaborator Jonathan Wilson, while arranger Drew Erickson has wrapped the songs tightly in lush orchestration, as if seeking to present them as rightful heirs to a lost catalogue of great American songwriting. There’s the occasional curveball, such as the Latin shuffle of Olvidado (Otro Momento), but for most part the music hovers on an astral plane between speakeasy jazz and the later nexus of Dylan, Nilsson and Newman. The result is strangely timeless.
It’s not anonymous, however. The album feels peopled with vivid yet unknowable characters: F Scott Fitzgerald ad men, film noir romantic heroines, Richard Brautigan oddballs. Who is Chloë, the subject of the first of two title tracks? A picture of sorts emerges but she remains mysterious behind drip-fed details: a “borough socialist”, “her soul is a pitch black expanse”. It ends badly for her, anyhow; she leaps off a balcony in the final verse.
Tillman’s wry humour makes cameos from time to time and he hasn’t lost his ability to look at a situation from a sideways perspective. Goodbye, Mr Blue successfully uses a dying cat as a means to reflect on a failed relationship. “That Turkish Angora is about the only thing left of me and you,” he sings, before wondering if he might still be with his ex if only the cat had snuffed it before their break-up. But more often than not these songs seem sincere. The piano introduction to Kiss Me (I Loved You) seems to be borrow directly from the title track of I Love You, Honeybear, but it’s a far sweeter affair than the sexy dishevelledness of its reference point.
The torch songs and odd character studies that comprise the meat of the record are not bad by any means. But they do have a tendency to rub a little too gently against you, where previous Father John Misty albums snapped playfully at your heels or bounded into your lap. And they feel less unique, less personal. When he sings “I”, or “my”, you feel less as though he is talking about Josh Tillman, more that he is speaking as a kind of everyman. He doesn’t inhabit the songs in the same way; it’s as if he is instead wearing them. The Father John Misty name has never felt like a veil, but you start to wonder if all those orchestral arrangements have been added as a means of concealment. It would be interesting to hear the raw tracks that he apparently laid down before Erickson got to work on them.
Then finally, right at the second title track, The Next 20th Century, which closes the album, the veil drops. This song is something of an outlier: Tillman rambles philosophically over a much darker arrangement, with ominous piano chords and a scorched guitar solo. It could almost be an outtake from Pure Comedy. Eventually he gets to the nub of his argument: “I don’t know about you but I’ll take the love songs / If this century’s here to stay.” It that what he’s been doing for the past 50 minutes? Prescribing a dose of romantic balladry to salve us through trying times, where “things keep getting worse while staying so eerily the same”? This is a new side of Father John Misty. It might take some getting used to.