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Father John Misty’s “new world of old characters”

Marlon Austin reviews Father John Misty's album "Chloe and the Next 20th Century".

CW: death, suicide

For the last two years, Josh Tillman has been on a well-deserved break. He had released a concept album about his own love life (2015’s I Love You Honeybear), tackled the grandiose issues of mankind’s flaws and the breakdown of his own marriage (2017’s Pure Comedy and 2018’s God’s Favourite Customer respectively), written for both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, and parodically covered Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift in the style of the Velvet Underground. In 2020 he released a live album for Covid relief, an EP of covers, and a pair of singles. Then he disappeared.

Having deleted Instagram and Twitter during the God’s Favourite Customer release cycle, the artist better known by his pseudonym Father John Misty only re-emerged in 2022 with the announcement of Chloë and the Next 20th Century and its lead single, Funny Girl. Its lush strings and titular reference to the Streisand film evoke an Old Hollywood feel that is mirrored throughout the album, while its lyrics introduce the listener to a celebrity stalker and Tillman’s trademark lyrical style. 

The opening track introduces the eponymous shoplifting socialist Chloë with 1920’s orchestral flourishes and and subsequently has her kill herself as the music fades out; “summer ended on the balcony / she put on Flight of the Valkyries / at her 31st birthday party / took a leap into the autumn leaves.” It sets the tone for an eclectic mix of tragic storytelling and showcases the wide array of instrumentation provided by an 11-piece orchestra and a string quartet. Production duties are immaculately handled by long-time collaborator Jonathan Wilson; the band sound polished as ever and the orchestral touches only add to the sense of grandeur created by the imaginative and evocative lyrics.

Goodbye Mr. Blue deals with a failed relationship briefly brought back together through the death of their shared cat (“that Turkish Angora’s ’bout the only thing left of me and you”), retaining the tragedy of 2018’s piano ballad Just Dumb Enough to Try over an instrumental homage to Harry Nillson’s Everybody’s Talkin’. The narrator’s sadness at his own misfortune is exacerbated by his wish for the rekindling of their love through the cat dying earlier; “maybe if he’d gone sooner / could’ve brought us back together last June.” 

Another track concerning this recurring juxtaposition of love and death is We Could Be Strangers, in which Tillman opines “you’ll lose the one sooner or later / just being who you are.” The ‘love’ between the couple in the song is shown as futile, the pair are shown to be car crash victims “bleeding on the freeway” and in yet another darkly comedic lyric the narrator takes relief in the fact that “I never wanted to disappoint you / at least I’ll never even get the chance to.” 

In Kiss Me (I Loved You), the piano opening mirrors that of 2015’s I Love You Honeybear, but contrasts that song’s dreamy proclamations of love with a desperate hope to restart yet another doomed relationship. “Our dream / endеd like dreams do” and “love is much less a mystery / than who you give it to” show his ever-increasing cynicism, but complement 2015’s mariachi-infused Holy Shit and its own declaration that “love is just an economy based on resource scarcity.” In this way, the song brings Honeybear full circle, all the way to the end of the relationship. The tremolo on the vocal enhances the dream-like qualities of the song, while David Lynch’s accompanying cover is sung in character as a capuchin monkey named Jack Cruz. 

Buddy’s Rendezvous asks “whatever happened to the girl I knew?” over the by-now familiar mix of piano, strings and light brushes of drums that fit perfectly on Lana Del Rey’s cover; her version of the song would not be out of place on Blue Banisters or Norman Fucking Rockwell. Olvidado (Otro Momento), is bossa nova sung in Spanish, inspired by a trip to Brazil and a conversation in the wrong language. The album concludes with The Next 20th Century, a 6 minute long Leonard Cohen-esque return to form and finishes with the thought that “I’ll take the love songs / if this century’s here to stay.” After 51 minutes of a beautiful ode to doomed love, we can only feel the same.

The album is a sprawling delight, full of morbid ends to inconclusive love stories. Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblack argues that “they feel less like songs than Paul Thomas Anderson movies compressed to six minutes or less,” and it is clear that Tillman has achieved the Hollywood ambitions hinted at in his debut album. Contrasted with Pure Comedy, it is less modern, less timely and much, much less political, but it introduces sparkling new stories and songs to fill the void left by the lack of social commentary. In Chloë and the Next 20th Century, Tillman succeeds spectacularly at creating a new world out of old characters.

Image Credit: Paul Hudson/CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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