Arguably one of the best songwriters of the 21st Century looks back to the 20th for his new album
Almost four years since Josh Tillman released his last studio album, God’s Favorite Customer, today his latest endeavour, Chloë and The Next 20th Century comes out via Sub Pop/Bella Union. While each album demonstrated growth and a departure from the last, Chloë embodies this in both a lyrical and instrumentation context. Back together with collaborator and co-producer Jonathan Wilson after the previous album hired Jonathan Rado to helm the ship, Chloë and The Next 20th Century began its writing phase in August 2020 and was completed just before the end of the year. Without anywhere open to tour, the album was pushed long back until today. But last night, fans were treated to a live stream album release concert from the Barbican in London, where Father John Misty, the band, was backed by The Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Jules Buckley. Not only was this the first time many of these new songs would be heard but Tillman’s banter provided the stories behind some of the songs.
While some tracks were released piecemeal, Tillman is an album-writer, especially for the last three releases. Finding a narrative to weave the songs is an adventure for his fans, whether intended by him or not. While Tillman has written himself generally as the antagonist of the stories in his previous volumes, he creates a new world for Chloë where the first person reportage within the songs is not the Tillman performing on the stage. Maybe it’s the Misty?
Opening big band-style with muted trumpet, piano, brushed snare and strings, Chloë describes the titular character of the album in a lyrical jam reminiscent of a stage musical. Vibraphone dances through the song as it ultimately tells us ‘her soul is a pitch-black expanse‘ as she put on Flight of the Valkyries at her thirty-first birthday party. Maybe this borough socialist is of a different stripe? From a 1930s musical theme to the early 70s, the lovely Goodbye Mr. Blue channels Harry Nilson and Randy Newman as Tillman tells the tale of a cat begrudgingly left in the leading figure’s care by a lost love. As poor Mr. Blue dies, the whistful man realizes his love has shifted to the damn cat. In Kiss Me (I Loved You), we return with Tillman to the 30s as he sings to a love (perhaps Chloë) who isn’t returning his feelings with equal intensity. On a similar theme, next, we get (Everything But) Her Love. The next track provides some of the closest that Chloë offers us to the old Misty in the staggeringly beautiful, Buddy’s Rendezvous. Tillman described the story as a recently released con giving his daughter (is it Chloë?) shitty advice. The second single released was Q4, which Josh described in detail as “about 2 sisters and one kinda cannibalizes her late sister’s life for a piece of airport autofiction paperback and then ends up kind of consensually exploited by a publishing company. This happy little tune was inspired by billboards in Hollywood everywhere that look miserably unfunny that all say quote-unquote ‘deeply funny’ and I couldn’t get that out of my head“. Speaking personally, this may be my favourite track on the album. The bossanova Olvidado (Otro Momento) follows.
The first single, Funny Girl (is Chloë funny?) confirms a return to the Old-Hollywood pastiche ribboned throughout this album. Lyrically, it continues the story, if one indeed exists among these 11 songs, in Tillman’s usual clever wordsmithery, namedropping the comic strip Cathy and David Letterman. Songs of FJM I didn’t care for at first listen often show their appeal to me after several more. Only A Fool and the penultimate track, We Could Be Strangers are two of those songs, though their meaning and position with this album’s narrative elude me. Again, Josh Tillman provides a strong closer to one of his albums. This time, the bookend title of The Next 20th Century also backlinks to the opening song. Recalling Chloe’s playing of Flight of the Valkyries, Tillman’s protagonist refers to a Nazi wedding band playing her anthem. If finally paydirt is hit and the song is being sung to the titular Chloë, our storyteller is spewing a historical tome of gloom as if to apportion the blame of humanity upon her. A confusing paragraph about Val Kilmer enters the song’s middle before a return to the sad laundry list of how humanity failed itself. It’s the heaviest song on the album, which Tillman tends to do. With closers like We’re Only People, In Twenty Years Or So and I Went To The Store One Day, respectively, the listener is left to ponder the end, at the end and The Next 20th Century adds itself to this list.
Despite my ridiculous questioning of who or what Chloë is or whether or not Tillman is telling us a story amongst the eleven tracks on the album, when asked by Jo Whiley in her BBC Radio Sofa Session if Chloë has an overarching theme, he responded
“The ever-present past. I have a very ambivalent relationship to it, on some level it can be kinda depressing when you feel culture has lost its momentum and we’re stuck recycling 20th-century culture, but on the other hand, a lot of those things are still with us because they’re so good and they have adapted and evolved and in a lot of ways address the present moment in a way that new things can’t.”
While Father John Misty was on the press circuit, Tillman was often a funny fountain of cynical and obtuse responses to interviewers, what he says resonates with the album’s feel. Closer to resolving a purposeful narrative, he applies these vague specifics as meaningfully as he can. The album likely is less a non-linear story that reveals its chronology by the style of music backing the lyrics and more an exercise in the freedom that ignores the constraints of what can be accomplished in a live show. Tillman said as much in his Sofa Session, and yet he brought the Chloë songs draped in a cinematic flourish to the stage during his Barbican performance. To me, this asks the question of what he can do as a songwriter to truly confound himself as a performer.
Perhaps we’ll see more glimpses of this during his upcoming tour. Maybe we’ll see the real Chloë too.
Father John Misty’s fifth studio album, Chloë and The Next 20th Century is out today, April 8 and can be found on all the usual streaming services.