This is the first opportunity I’ve had in the Picky Bastards website lifetime to write about a new release from one of my favourite modern day songwriters, Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty. FJM is a divisive figure, inspiring emotions from adulation to outright hatred, but whichever camp you sit in, the reason for your opinion is probably the same. His lyrics and persona are wordy, literary and self-aggrandising, and that will either resonate with you as witty and clever, or pretentious and pseudo-intellectual. Ironically though, he’s been moving in the opposite direction from the maximum version of this persona for a while now. The social commentary of 2017’s Pure Comedy was arguably FJM at his most indulgent, but 2018’s God’s Favourite Customer, ‘Mr Tillman’ aside, was a much more straightforward, introspective affair.
Chloë and the Next 20th Century, his first record in four years, continues this trajectory, removing himself from the narrative almost completely. With very little in the way of interviews and explanations of the concept, it’s left completely to our interpretation. This time, when Tillman says ‘I’, he appears to be talking from the perspective of a number of different characters who appear in the vignettes peppered across this album. Produced as ever by longtime collaborator Jonathan Wilson, the sound centres on the lilting swing of 1920s showtunes. The result is maybe his least divisive album, and a rather strange record.
As ever, these are well-written songs. Wilson and Tillman nail the 20s aesthetic with a series of lushly orchestrated songs which sound like a time long ago. But across the record, there’s a curious lack of bite to the music. Usually FJM albums reveal their magic across subsequent listens, but beyond inspiring a greater appreciation for the song construction across Chloë, repeated plays don’t really make the songs any more memorable.
Of course, there are good moments. ‘Funny Girl’, the lead single, is almost an archetypal FJM song with its beautiful, string-laden instrumentation and lyrical wit that is delicious in its hyperspecificity (“you’re transformed into a five-foot Cleopatra”). I had it on repeat in the week of its release. ‘Buddy’s Rendezvous’ is similar. It’s sumptuous in its melancholy, telling the tale of an ex-con dad serenading his long-lost daughter on his release from prison. And ‘Goodbye Mr Blue’ is a textbook example of an FJM song that grows into something miles removed from its first impression. At first, the meandering instrumental that barely changes for the whole song seems pretty dull. But when repeated, it reveals itself as the perfect setting for a rather sweet story about endings, as the death of a shared cat from a doomed relationship gives the narrator cause for reflection. In my opinion, it’s the best song on here.
But it’s a shame that these are isolated incidents across the record. ‘(Everything But) Her Love’ lilts along at a gentle pace, but the conclusion of every listen left me wondering what the point of it is. The bossa nova rhythm of ‘Olvidado (Otro Momento)’ is pleasantly produced but feels very inconsequential. ‘Only A Fool’ and ‘We Could Be Strangers’ are similar. They’re later cuts from the record that have minor narrative interest and fairly enjoyable production, but unusually, the music feels so one-paced that the songs feel totally forgettable. The 1920s vibe is present and correct, but I’m not sure that’s enough. Tillman’s typical meta, self-aware narrative style, love it or hate it, is absent – leaving the song’s meanings shrouded in vagueness. The change of tack is a nice idea, but the execution feels off, and the impact blunted.
The last track dispenses with the album’s formula and seems to bring us back to the present day, with an extended monologue about mankind’s tendency to make the same mistakes. It’s as if Tillman bottled up these sentiments for the sake of the narrative and couldn’t resist releasing them here. But tellingly, like much of the rest of the album it doesn’t work that well, instead feeling rather plodding – like a version of FJM that we’ve seen done better in the past.
With Chloë and the Next 20th Century we have a typically richly produced Father John Misty album. So for me, at least there’s a certain charm in the listening experience, but ultimately it feels like an album flawed in its original concept. As ever, I applaud the idea of an artist experimenting with a new direction. But ultimately, this version of Tillman’s music doesn’t satisfy a diehard like me, and I doubt it’s likely to win over the sceptics. At least cater for one of us, man.
Words by Tom Burrows