Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Father John Misty Chloë And The Next 20th Century

Sub Pop/Bella Union
Sub Pop/Bella Union

God’s Favorite Customer felt like the end of the story Josh Tillman had been telling as Father John Misty. He’d undergone a hallucinogenic rebirth and introduced listeners to his new persona on 2012’s Fear Fun; he’d shown us that acerbic skeptic flailing through romantic convulsions and succumbing to domestic bliss on 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear; he’d presented the sprawling decline of human civilization on 2017’s Pure Comedy; and, finally, he’d faced down the personal reckonings of 2018’s God’s Favorite Customer. In six years, Josh Tillman released four of the most celebrated and divisive albums in the loosely defined “indie sphere.” Along the way, he also became a love-him-or-hate-him character — nimbly dancing around interviews and press narratives until he’d taken it about as far as it could go and then, in yet another about-face in a career full of them, going totally silent and letting the music of his fourth album speak for itself. It made the end destinations of God’s Favorite Customer, a life imploding and a man reassembling the pieces, all the more resounding.

That could be a complete story. There was a distinct, compelling arc. But we all knew Father John Misty wasn’t over. While touring God’s Favorite Customer, Tillman was already debuting new songs, and it seemed as if the prolific FJM hot streak would continue unabated. That’s not what happened. Save a stray song here and there and the occasional show, he’s been quieter than ever these past couple years: a long four-year stretch between albums, a continued aversion to press, and now, finally, a fifth album full of old-time-y jazz and orchestral affectations. The man knows how to keep people guessing.

Chloë And The Next 20th Century immediately comes off like FJM’s Next Big Statement, an album that would pivot from the personal narratives of God’s Favorite Customer back to the widescreen cultural sagas of Pure Comedy. Between that title and the four-year wait, everything would seem primed for Tillman to come back swinging in that FJM mode we all once knew. But that’s not what Chloë And The Next 20th Century is. Rather, it is Tillman’s gentlest, softest, and most puzzling Father John Misty album to date.

Tillman already signaled something different was afoot by releasing the understated “Funny Girl” as the album’s lead single, but its opener and first title track “Chloë” really sets the stage. After some muted horn bleats, the song settles into a loping but unhurried gait, horn and string curlicues pleasantly swirling around Tillman’s latest character sketch of pseudo-intellectuals and self-destruction. The mid-century stylings don’t stop there. Across 11 tracks, Chloë And The Next 20th Century primarily foregoes the psychedelia and folk-rock of FJM’s past for big band and lounge balladry and even bossa nova.

Tillman has returned with some stunning new songs. “Goodbye Mr. Blue” is a ruminative “Everybody’s Talking” redux, while “Q4” is an infectious cascade of harpsichords and the rare sprightly moment on the album. Both are relative outliers, and both are highlights. Mostly, the songs on Chloë are patient, string-drenched, exquisitely arranged but requiring several listens before their melodies stick with you. These, too, can be rewarding: the frailty in Tillman’s voice in “Kiss Me (I Loved You),” “Buddy’s Rendezvous” beamed in from a smoke-filled bar of the past, the way “We Can Be Strangers” inverts a classic FJM hookup banality (“This conversation’s at an impasse/ Maybe the future will look brighter undressed”) before the two would-be lovers die in a car crash.

Similarly, the themes oscillate between lovelorn confessions and Tillman’s acute and cutting depictions of all us listless idiots flitting around in America’s death spiral. From Chloë the borough socialist to the memoirist in “Q4,” Tillman is still great at bemusingly bleak depictions; “Funny Girl,” in comparison, finds the shtick running a bit thin. On the other side of things, “Buddy’s Rendezvous” is as compelling a crash landing as “God’s Favorite Customer,” while “Goodbye Mr. Blue” is that perfect blend of absurdity and poignance that runs through so many of Tillman’s best struggling relationship accounts, as a couple temporarily reconciles over the death of their pet: “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.”

But taken as a whole, Chloë And The Next 20th Century is a mood album that really requires you to sink in and meet it on its terms. Even the similarly slowburn Pure Comedy had more variations in tempo and timbre and texture, whereas Chloë takes a surprising approach and really commits to it. On one hand, it’s not entirely accurate to dismiss Chloë as something less than a big, bold return on FJM’s part. There is plenty of ambition and craft across the album, and it’s hard to think of many other artists on Tillman’s wavelength or echelon who are messing with these particular pieces of pop history. But more than ever with FJM, this is a real “your mileage may vary”-type affair. His detractors will be unmoved, and some fans will be deterred. There is no less beauty on Chloë than its predecessors, but hearing Tillman reemerge in such an austere mood takes some getting used to.

It’s a great big left turn of an album, and even within that trajectory Tillman eventually veers off into an unforeseen direction. Just when you think you’ve got Chloë And The Next 20th Century completely figured out — 40-odd minutes in, after the stretch of “Funny Girl” into “Only A Fool” into “We Could Be Strangers” — the album upends everything with its titanic, stunning closer: its second title track, “The Next 20th Century.” Out of nowhere, Tillman abandons the ballads and the ’50s palette, the sweet sounds mingling with sour feelings. “The Next 20th Century” is a song laden with apocalyptic gravity, suddenly all-consuming. It’s an immediate contender for the best Father John Misty song.

“The Next 20th Century” is a masterwork of atmosphere — haunting yet soothing strings and synths, a simmering beat, the kind of melody that’s simple but forceful enough to make every line hit with profundity. A Nazi wedding band, Val Kilmer as Batman, “Recite your history of oppression, babe/ While you are under me,” “But none of us here/ Will ever see the promised land/ None of us here will be there for childhood’s end,” “Come build your burial grounds/ On our burial grounds/ But you won’t kill death that way”: The whole song is a tour de force of what Tillman does best. It mingles cultural detritus and the mundane ways we fill our lives and the distractions we fall prey to under an all-encompassing grey sky of eternal existential woes. When that gnarled guitar rises up, it’s shocking in the context of the song, and especially within the flow of the album as a whole — a slight allowance of release. And then finally, at the end, some resolution to go on: “I don’t know ’bout you/ But I’ll take the love songs/ And give you the future in exchange… I’ll take the love songs/ And the great distance that they came.”

Here, at the end of the album, you get the kind of lyrical and sonic scope one might’ve expected from a Father John Misty album titled Chloë And The Next 20th Century. If the rest of the album has to grow on you, I haven’t been able to shake “The Next 20th Century” since the first time I heard it. In many ways, it almost feels like it was dropped in from another album, and perhaps it was — you could imagine it sitting alongside the songs debuted in 2019, “Tell It Like It Is” and “Time Makes A Fool Of Us,” a synth-y late-night Cohen-esque FJM album.

That isn’t the album we got, though. Instead, Chloë And The Next 20th Century is an oddity, with certain songs that very much speak to each other, and other sets that speak to each other, some in classic FJM dialect and some trying out something new. Altogether, it’s intriguing, to have no idea how he arrived at this sound and where he might go from here. That’s always been the case with Father John Misty, and there’s often something rewarding in the zigs and zags and obfuscation. That remains true here, in all the striking moments Chloë And The Next 20th Century can offer. But the album is still something of a paradox: Father John Misty at maybe his most frustrating while also his prettiest and most polite.

Chloë And The Next 20th Century is out 4/8 on Sub Pop and Bella Union.

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