Album Review: Father John Misty - 'Chloë and the Next 20th Century'

The term 'singer-songwriter' doesn't capture half of what makes Josh Tillman, the man behind Father John Misty. Across 10 years of music output under that name, the American poet has pioneered a unique niche of existential chamber-pop and dominated it, amassing critical claim and commercial success. It's been 4 years since Father John Misty's last project, and with a longer break than usual comes even more anticipation. The Mic's Communications Secretary Louis Griffin breaks down the long awaited album, 'Chloë and the Next 20th Century'.

Father John Misty has never shied away from conceptualism. The recording project of Josh Tillman has seen him turn his gaze towards the end of the world, the inevitability of suffering, and the human condition during late capitalism, but his latest reinvention might be his most complete yet. Chloë and the Next 20th Century sees him donning the guise of a Sinatra-esque crooner backed by a jazz orchestra, in a performance that will be either endearing homage or painful cosplay, depending on how willing listeners are to follow Tillman down his new path.

"...the startlingly brilliant melody of Buddy’s Rendezvous cuts straight through the hazy fug of the first half of the album."

The instrumentation is the first thing you notice about the record – opener Chloë plunges us directly into a smoky bar, with Father John addressing us over a backing that does indeed seem to be from the last century. Now there’s two possible readings on this: perhaps this is a case of mid-career excess? After all, Tillman has reached the point where he can afford a full orchestra, why not make full use of that fact? But this doesn’t quite ring true, especially in the way he utilises his new toys. No, I think he’s making a far more arch point about the cyclic nature of pop, and culture at large – but that’s all a little heavy for the second paragraph.

No, the take-home message is that this album sounds gorgeous. Really, properly gorgeous. The liner notes proudly proclaim that the album features arrangements by Drew Erickson, with the strings, brass and woodwind recorded “at United Recordings in a session featuring Dan Higgins and Wayne Bergeron, among others.” The record sounds exactly how you’d expect it to sound, given that the session players get their own mention in the press release. Upright bass, soaring strings and tinkles of piano all sit exactly where you’d expect them to in the mix, and the most modern affectation on the entire thing is a tremolo effect on Josh’s voice – which, according to Wikipedia, dates back to the 1940s.

Chloë… isn’t entirely disparate from Tillman’s back catalogue, though. The country slide guitars of Goodbye, Mr Blue recall moments on 2012’s Fear Fun, and the classic songwriting on so many of these ballads could be shorn of its mid-century guise, and re-fitted onto any of his previous albums. Indeed, the strength of Tillman’s songwriting is responsible for piercing the vintage effect at times – the startlingly brilliant melody of Buddy’s Rendezvous (which is refitted with a feature from Lana Del Rey on the album’s deluxe version) cuts straight through the hazy fug of the first half of the album. Brilliant and aching though that song is, it’s also a good lens through which to discuss the album’s dubious politics. On Buddy’s Rendezvous, he pleads with his lover to “forget that lefty shit your mom drilled in your mind”, which is one of many nods on this album to Misty’s unhappiness with the comfortably liberal world he finds himself in. But it’s hard to figure out what he’s actually trying to say – there’s an element here of the centrist ‘piss both sides off and I’m doing my job right’ mindset, but I think something else is going on.

"He tracks the late Scott Walker’s career almost completely in the instrumentals, starting with a sparse backbeat, ascending into lush orchestration, and then crashing back to earth with a burst of atonal guitar.

Tillman has tackled polarising politics before. Pure Comedy almost entirely deals with the neoliberal consensus, trying to ascertain what we’re all actually doing. But this album seems more concerned with making another point – that these problems are the same as we’ve ever had. Yes, we think the world’s ending – but didn’t they think that almost exactly 100 years ago, between two world wars? And yes, cancel culture seems to be a new level of puritanism (to some, anyway) – but censorship in line with societal norms is nothing new. It’s this fact that Misty seems to be drilling down into, both in the album’s title, and in its closing track.

The Next 20th Century, the album’s closer, is a slab of existential songwriting, in the vein of Misty’s other polemics Holy Shit and Leaving LA. He tracks the late Scott Walker’s career almost completely in the instrumentals, starting with a sparse backbeat, ascending into lush orchestration, and then crashing back to earth with a burst of atonal guitar. But the song itself – via an aside about celebrity culture through the lens of Val Kilmer – is more preoccupied with the fact that all of these outrages are the same as they’ve ever been.

“And now things keep getting worse while staying so eerily the same.” So, what’s to be done? Yes, these problems aren’t new – but pointing that out doesn’t change how important they are. Misty’s newfound apoliticism seems to run entirely counter to his previously ardent belief in the human spirit. But of course, there’s another reading to this too. The closing lyric of the album sums up Misty’s philosophy succinctly, and is fairly hard to disagree with:

“I don’t know ‘bout you / But I’ll take the love songs / And give you the future in exchange”

Yes, our problems are terrifying – but they’ve always been, so why don’t we enjoy the orchestra while we can? It might seem that on Chloë and the Next 20th Century Father John Misty is doing something new entirely, but he’s actually doing something quite old – and entirely vital.

Louis Griffin


Edited by: Elliot Fox

In article images courtesy of Father John Misty via Facebook. Video courtesy of BBC Music via YouTube.