Father John Misty – Chloë and the Next 20th Century
Baroque Pop | Jazz | Folk
Like most fans, I boarded the Father John Misty hype train during the I Love You, Honeybear and Pure Comedy era. It’s here that Josh Tillman, under the moniker of his larger-than-life stage persona, most stood out as a truly singular lyricist. Against a backdrop of lush folk arrangements he’d turn his trademark dry wit on to all aspects of love and modern life. From scathing critiques of consumerist culture, sardonic satirisation of the abysmal excesses of politics and religion, to voyeuristic insights into his love life – all approached and expressed from his own unique perspective. His madcap metaphors and amusing analogies delivering an abundance of memorable one-liners.
But with 2018’s God’s Favourite Customer, a lot of the magic was lost. The arrangements were often stripped back to basics and it felt drained of the droll humour that I’d come to love. There was no deeper message or moral as its lyrical lens was focussed squarely inward. And yet, even when pegged as an autobiographical record, it somehow came across as his most impersonal work to date; absent the dark and eccentric approach to lyricism, so immensely full of character, that set him in a class of songwriters all his own. Four years on and it seemed like the stage was set for a triumphant return. With time spent in lockdown naturally inciting introspection, and the absurd clusterfuck that is the pandemic and the “new-normal” providing ample ammunition for Tillman’s satirical eye, it appeared like his next studio album should be a slam-dunk.
However, Chloe isn’t the album I was expecting it to be in a number of ways. Musically it exceeds my expectations. Right from the opening track it delivers the most grand and opulent arrangements in his catalogue to date. With a cinematic scope and elegance, embracing a lavish big band sound that evokes the golden age of Hollywood, it’s a style suits his Father John Misty alter-ego down to the ground. Reaching its pinnacle with the sumptuous slow dance of ‘Funny Girl’, it has an inescapable air of romanticism that feels like a natural progression of the vibe found on Honeybear. With a few curveballs thrown in here and there, like the warm sax on ‘Buddy’s Rendezvous’ and the chaotic Eastern inspired fuzzy guitar solo on closing track ‘The Next 20th Century’, to mix up the formula. Not everything lands as intended, ‘Goodbye Mr. Blue’ plays like a pretty blatant pastiche of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ while ‘Olvidado (Otro Momento)’ sounds like elevator music, but overall the Hollywood glamour does a great job of tying the album together.
From a lyrical standpoint though this is a far cry from FJM at his best. Everything points to Chloe and The Next 20th Century being a concept album, a love story given the silver screen treatment, but it’s so loosely arranged, shallow and self contradicting in its execution that it never really gets off the ground. It plays less like a classic romance in the vein of Casablanca and more like a jumbled collection of half-remembered thoughts and feelings viewed through rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. Tillman never approaches a topic from the direction you expect but it usually makes sense when he reaches his final destination, whereas here all too often you’re left wondering what exactly he was aiming for. And in the few instances where he does exhibit some of his outside-the-box thinking (likening a fading relationship to the passing of a pet cat or two car crash victims bleeding out on ‘Goodbye Mr. Blue’ and ‘We Could Be Strangers’ respectively) he does so without crafting any striking one-liners.
In many ways Chloe reminds me of Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Lush palatial arrangements, a threadbare poorly developed concept, a lauded lyricist falling short of expectations, and a record that’s enjoyable enough in the background but ultimately not a patch on what it could have been.