For an artist to radically change up their sound is one thing. But for them to do it after a four-year break, when many fans will be expecting a return to the comforting familiarity of their old hits? That’s a bold move. Then again, artistic boldness and defiance of expectations have always been par for the course with Joshua Tillman, better known as Father John Misty.
Tillman has built a successful career as Father John Misty with an uncanny ability to surprise his listeners through his signature blend of dry humour and sardonic social criticism. His song-writing could be described as either clever or pretentiously self-indulgent, depending on where your tastes lie. His 2017 LP “Pure Comedy”, a concept album about the end of the world released about three years too early, unleashed that scabrous wit in full force, with Misty’s lyricism ranging from the irreverent to the deliberately provocative. It was an immensely ambitious project, landing at around 75 minutes in length, and it seemed hard to imagine how Misty might top it. The follow-up, 2018’s “God’s Favourite Customer”, functioned as a kind of reset album and temporary goodbye to fans, with Tillman withdrawing from social media and interviews around the same time as its release. Misty would drop a few low-key singles in 2020, but “God’s Favourite Customer” seemed to be his last full-length album for a while. Until now that is, with the release of “Chloë and the Next 20th Century” on April 8th, 2022.
But rather than returning to the familiar folk rock of his past work, Misty instead opts for a drastic reinvention of his sound which takes inspiration from the pre-rock era of the ‘40s and ‘50s: all glitzy showbiz and Hollywood glamour. The album is peppered with homages to this bygone era of American entertainment, with the jaunty horns and delicate piano keys of opening track “Chloë” intentionally at odds with Misty’s ironic ode to a troubled lover with an “unscrupulous therapist” that prescribes him Benzedrine for his “shoplifting”. This song is one of the highlights of the album, and is so fun that on first listen you might miss the fact that Chloë jumps off of her balcony in the final verse – I certainly did.
This signature cynicism and darkness is not at all unusual for Misty, but it works on this album in a way it hasn’t in the past by contrasting with the guileless sincerity of the instrumentation. For example “Olvidado (Otro Momento)”, an enjoyable bossa nova number which features Misty singing to an unidentified lover in Spanish, is such a faithful recreation of the genre it’s aping that the underlying sense of exasperation Misty seems to feel towards his partner remains just that: underlying. While this might be irritating for some fans who long for the more immediate bitterness of Misty’s earlier work, it arguably makes “Chloë” his most accessible record yet by allowing the music to work on multiple different levels.
Part of the reason it pulls this off is that these songs aren’t just satirical imitations of music from the era- they’re also legitimately well made songs that have been carefully curated and produced, and which cover a wide array of tones and genres while never straying too far from the overall vibe of the album. The intricate and epic orchestration tracks like “Chloë” and “Q4” make those songs genuinely fun in a way that much of Misty’s output hasn’t felt since “I Love You, Honeybear”. Even more low-key acoustic tracks like the Harry Nilsson-esque “Goodbye Mr. Blue”, which tells the story of a failing relationship given new life by the death of the couple’s cat, still strike the perfect balance between being funny and legitimately moving.
In fact, one of the standout qualities of “Chloë” in comparison to the rest of Misty’s discography is how consistently emotive it is. You’ll find few songs in his catalogue as strikingly vulnerable as “Kiss Me (I Loved You)” or “Funny Girl”, which seem ripped straight from a smoking lounge filled with lonely souls reminiscing on lost loves. Where it previously seemed as though Misty was never willing to get too close to the subjects of his songs, here he allows the listener to enter their headspace. This is best exemplified on “Buddy’s Rendezvous”, sung from the perspective of an ex-con meeting his adult daughter for the first time in many years. While Misty never lets the protagonist become fully sympathetic to us, this ultimately makes the final gut punch of the song hit even harder because of how inevitable it was. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one which ultimately ends up as both surprisingly heartbreaking and the best song on the album.
At times the album seems torn between its sonic landscape and its status as a Father John Misty album. On paper the Beatles-inspired psychedelia and cryptic lyrics of “(Everything) But Her Love” should mesh together perfectly, but in practice, it results in a song with a lot of ambiguity but not enough intrigue to invite many repeat listens. Meanwhile, Misty’s restrained vocal performance and less showy lyrics don’t do him many favours on the laid back “Only a Fool”, which ends up sounding lifeless and forgettable in an album packed with so many interesting and distinctive tracks.
The album tries to synthesise these two competing identities on its closer “The Next 20th Century”, the most traditional Father John Misty track on the album, to mixed results. While I ultimately admire this song for its striking imagery and the way it contextualises the album within the rest of Misty’s discography, the connection it attempts to draw between white colonialism and the modern entertainment industry is muddy at best and tasteless at worst: “Recite your history of oppression babe/While you are under me” might be the worst Father John Misty line I can call to memory.
Nevertheless, the song does hit on one of the major appeals of the album in its closing moments: “I’ll take the love songs/And give you the future in exchange”. Father John Misty has always been an artist unafraid to look at the bleakness of our universe head on, with defiant scorn and unapologetic black humour. But on “Chloë and the Next 20th Century” he seems instead to be looking for an escape from the doom and gloom of it all, served up in the form of classic love songs his parents might have played around the house when he was a child. Maybe, by listening to the album, you can experience some of that escapism too.
Standout Tracks: Chloë, Goodbye Mr. Blue, Buddy’s Rendezvous, Q4, Funny Girl“