Like all of Father John Misty’s albums, Chloë and the Next 20th Century is no exception when it comes to the element of surprise that permeates through the entire album – sonically and lyrically – while Tillman’s alter ego offers the listeners an in-depth look into his inexhaustible imagination. Painting vivid portraits of elusive characters in his narratives with the truth always lurking somewhere beneath the surface and hidden amidst the artist’s remarkable eloquence.
More than ever on this new album, he seems to operate from a kind of meta level with his poignancy and savvy remarks. However, only revealing what is necessary to keep the listener guessing just enough on their way to escapism. Across eleven songs, Tillman is backed up by opulent orchestral arrangements that serve as the perfect canvas for his storytelling and the songs’ melodic charm. Written and recorded in 2020, the album’s core draws sonic inspiration from the golden age of Hollywood and a big band feeling with jazzy nuances and a love for lush, layered arrangements that give off a nostalgic vibe. Beautifully conveyed by a whole section of strings, brass and woodwinds that were recorded in sessions at United Recordings in Los Angeles.
As much as the album’s tone and setting is reminiscent of this past era – loosely outlined between the 30s and 60s – the eleven songs Father John Misty reveals on his new studio album are much more than a facsimile of old times. With longtime friend and producer Jonathan Wilson and engineer Dave Cerminara by his side, Josh Tillman has created timeless, compelling songs with a sense of gravitas and wit alike – adding daintily arrangements and even more eclectic visions to his already impressive catalog.
A journey through time
Father John Misty’s journey as one of the most prolific contemporary songwriters has already produced a number of artistic achievements in the past years – most notably 2017’s masterpiece Pure Comedy with Tillman not holding back with his social criticism and sharing his ruminative observations on the decline of human civilization while asking the big questions surrounding love, growth and mortality. An endeavor so complex that 2018’s God’s Favorite Customer saw him shake the weight of the world off his shoulders for a moment to reveal a new level of introspectiveness and focus on the autobiographical aspects of his life and relationships instead. This time, being at the mercy of his feelings and putting his personal experiences under the microscope.
Fast forward to 2022 and his latest release Chloë and the Next 20th Century, Father John Misty has found his destiny on the big stage surrounded by a number of fictional characters that fuel his love for (unconventional) storytelling and casual reflections only he knows to turn into compelling narratives so well. Perhaps the gap between cryptic and straightforward depictions has never been bigger this time around as Tillman carefully leads us through the various stories. Always making sure to do so with a soft focus lens at hand turning the different episodes into hazy, elegant and soothing pieces – no matter how tragic the story. Like in the opening song Chloë in which Father John Misty sings about ‘a borough socialist’ who ends up jumping off the balcony or Q4’s main character who appropriates her sister’s backstory in order to write her novel before things spiral out of control.
It is a much more gentle approach Father John Misty takes on Chloë and the Next 20th Century. The album’s overall tone being a lot less cutting than usual and probably much more cohesive in terms of textures and tempo, but never lacking any originality and twist in regards to the songs’ main characters and their appeal. In Goodbye Mr. Blue the protagonists even rekindle their relationship over their cat’s death with Tillman singing:
“This may be the last time
The last time I lay here with you
Do you swear it’s not the cat?
You don’t have to answer that”
In a lot of ways, the album’s strength lies in its restraint – never fully revealing the full picture of the story along with weightless orchestral arrangements that benefit the atmosphere and stunning vocals that seem lovelorn, determined and vulnerable whenever necessary. It probably doesn’t get any better than in the heartfelt and pure Kiss Me (I Loved You).
Exchanging the indie-folk-rock of his previous œuvre for a more refined and mature big band sound that even dares to flirt with Bossa Nova in the marvellous Olvidado (Otro Momento). Displaying a much more apocalyptic mood a few songs later, Father John Misty is closing off the album with the striking almost seven minute long The Next 20th Century – including a lamenting electric guitar that forcefully disrupts Tillman’s sincere statements about the state of the world in an otherwise mellow soundscape with him declaring:
“Now things keep getting worse while staying so eerily the same
I don’t know bout you
But I’ll take the love songs
And give you the future in exchange
I don’t know ’bout you
But I’ll take the love songs
If this century’s here to stay
Holding onto love songs until things change for the better may not be the worst thing to do. Thankfully, Father John Misty has once again offered us so much more than that with his latest work to endure whatever burden may come our way. Flipping through his back catalog with all its sagacity, artistry and urgency, it is hard to think of a fellow songwriter with equally enriching qualities to their work in the present moment.
Chloë and the Next 20th Century is a sublime and powerful reminder that Father John Misty is not done exploring his imagination in even more sophisticated ways yet.
Father John Misty’s new album Chloë and the Next 20th Century is out now via Bella Union.