More often than not, it seems like Father John Misty was blasted into our timeline from another era. While Josh Tillman’s first two albums under that name – Fear Fun (2012) and I Love You, Honeybear (2015) – owed as much to hyper-literate ’70s folk as contemporary indie rock. Pure Comedy (2017) was clearly inspired by the heavy orchestrations and satirical bent of Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and Warren Zevon (with a dash of Frank Zappa’s sneering social commentary). Lyrics that address everything from virtual reality porn to climate change angst brought Tillman’s subject matter to the present day. The follow-up, 2018’s God’s Favorite Customer, was more of an inward take on the existential singer-songwriter vibe – a more dialed-down but still potent approach.
Now, four years later, comes Chloë and the Next 20th Century. It’s obvious straight away that the orchestral swoop of Pure Comedy is back in the fold. But this time around, Tillman seems more committed to the style, so much so that more than a few of the songs on Chloë sound like smartly remastered recordings of tunes from a bygone era.
Tillman dives right into the album’s nostalgic buzz with “Chloë”, as a playful flugelhorn and warm brass and strings give off the air of a 1940s wartime pop favorite, even as the lyrics prove otherwise. “Chloë is a borough socialist / She insists there’s not much more to it / Than drinks with a certain element / Of downtown art criticism.” People like Chloë certainly existed during this time, but nobody was singing about them on the victrola. The timeframe shifts again with the achingly beautiful “Goodbye Mr. Blue”, as Tillman takes fairly straightforward cues from the Jimmy Webb/Fred Neil school of gentle, acoustic AM radio folk. Lamenting the death of his pet cat (and how it affects his relationship with his partner), Tillman is eloquent yet resigned. “One down, eight to go / But it’s no less true,” he sings, “Don’t the last time come too soon.”
Tillman has always enjoyed playing off the excesses of 1970s singer-songwriters, with one eye on decadence and another on scene-setting. The jazzy, languid balladry of “Buddy’s Rendezvous” is straight out of vintage Zevon. Reminiscent of “The French Inhaler” in its sympathy for the broken female character Tillman laments: “Whatever happened to the girl I knew,” he sings. “In the wasteland, come up short and end up on the news.”
Tillman’s voice is – as always – a potent instrument on Chloë, able to be both understated and full-throated. He’s once again joined by producer and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson, and the arrangements by Drew Erickson not only invite comparisons to the sophisticated touches on Tillman’s previous albums; they often surpass them. “Funny Girl”, for instance – the album’s first single – is another warm, orchestral bit of aural time-traveling, but it doesn’t for a moment come off as a halfhearted stab at Tin Pan Alley. It’s a dedicated, meticulously crafted treasure. Even when the light bossa nova vibe of “Olvidalo (Otro Momento)” makes its playful appearance, the style has a sense of deeply felt authenticity.
Chloë and the Next 20th Century concludes with a grand epic sweep, as the seven-minute “The Next 20th Century” indulges in a bit of absurd surrealism. “The Nazis that we hired / For our wedding band / Played your anthem like I wasn’t there.” It eventually dips into pop culture: “Val Kilmer had a wall-length mirror just over there / Well I’m sure he’s someone else now / He was Batman when he lived here.” But the music packs a heavy, tense punch, full of growling synthesizers, booming piano chords, and dramatic, cinematic orchestrations. A noisy squall of a guitar solo cuts midway through the song like a tornado and quickly disappears, replaced by gorgeous, elegant strings.
The moments on Chloë and the Next 20th Century that seem normal and traditional are executed so perfectly that you can’t fault Tillman for simply making a pop album of the highest order. But when the album delivers surprising, sometimes jarring episodes, it’s a reminder that Father John Misty is an important, unique, and undeniably brilliant artist.