Photo Credit: Ward & Kweskin
At a time of rampant ’80s nostalgia in music, trust Josh “Father John Misty” Tillman – never one to blindly follow trends – to take it a step further and look to the big band sound of the 1950s that has thus far been left largely untouched by contemporary musicians. Tillman’s fifth LP arrives nearly four years after his last – God’s Favorite Customer – and that four-year period marks the longest gap between albums in Tillman’s career thus far. Between 2015 and 2018, Tillman released three albums. Each offered a sweeping survey of 21st-century discontent and each became an indie landmark in its own right.
In the time between Tillman’s last full-length and now, both the world at large and the world of indie-rock have changed beyond recognition. Since then, Tillman’s worldview – unmistakably progressive, underpinned by a deep skepticism of modern trends, but critical of “that lefty shit” – has been both vindicated and villanized in equal measure. Much of the doomsday horror of 2017’s Pure Comedy has been born out in the five years since, yet Tillman still seems peerless, continuing to operate in a lane solely his own.
The lead up to Chloë and the Next 20th Century has been devoid of the theatrics that usually accompanies a Father John Misty release – no LSD-fuelled interviews or cryptic social media posts – and fittingly what has arrived is Tillman’s most sincere work to date; the product of a man with nothing left to prove. Sincere though it may be, don’t call Chloë and the Next 20th Century straightforward. Featuring six deaths across its 51-minute run-time and plenty of lyrics begging to be endlessly poured over, Father John Misty’s fifth album is still just that; a Father John Misty album. Though its sound stands in stark contrast to anything made by Tillman thus far, in many ways, his fifth album is a logical progression from his past output.
Multiple characters come and go in the world of Chloë. There is, of course, our titular protagonist – a Benzedrine addict who commits suicide on her thirty-first birthday – but also the “Funny Girl” film star who is the protagonist of the album’s lead single, the nameless estranged couple in “Goodbye Mr. Blue” – whose only evidence of their relationship exists in the form of their dying elderly cat – and, fictional author Simone Caldwell, who exploits her late sister’s life story and is the subject of “Q4”.
Fundamentally, however, all these characters serve the same purpose – to give voice to the sort of discontent that feels both uniquely modern and simultaneously timeless. The first of our two title tracks is a reflection on a world whose expectations of people – or, at least, certain groups of people – are so rigid and constrictive that it can feel as though the only escape is death. Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Q4” is an indictment of loose morals, desperation born out of the harsh realities of capitalism, and the hollowness and inauthenticity of so much literary criticism (“What’s ‘deeply funny’ mean anyhow?” scoffs Tillman at the critical consensus of Caldwell’s “semi-memoir”).
Whereas much of Tillman’s past work indicted society-at-large, on Chloë he hones in on the individuals within such a society to examine the personal fallout of oppression, prejudice, corporatism, and good ol’ fashioned heartbreak. In the face of unrequited love, our subject is “hard-pressed for a reason to get out of bed” in “(Everything But) Her Love.” While the shimmering highlight “Buddy’s Rendezvous” – which is covered fantastically by Lana Del Rey on the album’s deluxe – tells of a femme fatale who ultimately ends up being more of a danger to herself than to the men whose lives she enters and leaves. After her attempts in “getting everything [she] wants” fails and she ends up murdered over unpaid debts, our narrator becomes insular and nihilistic, telling skeptical “losers and old-timers” at the bar of his romantic exploits with our doomed, late protagonist. “Whatever happened to the girl I knew? // In the wasteland, come up short and end up on the news,” Tillman repeats thrice at the song’s end, somehow sounding further and further away from reaching closure with each repetition.
This sense of unresolve reverberates throughout Chloë and the Next 20th Century. ‘Optimist’ has certainly never been a word used to describe Tillman, and he’s always been better at diagnosing the world’s ills than proscribing the cures. But there was always a laser-point precision and distinct sense of purpose with which he sang of said ills on past releases. On Chloë, he seemingly surrenders to hopelessness.
“I’ll take the love songs // And the great distance that they’ve come”, he sings on the sprawling, final title track, begrudgingly accepting love as the consolation prize for a doomed world on the precipice of collapse. It’s hard not to read it as an admission of defeat, but the power of Tillman’s music, ultimately, has always come from telling us the unvarnished truths that we always knew deep down but didn’t want to admit to ourselves. And what could be a more fitting portrait of 2022 than that of a cynical, jaded man burying himself in the past to seek reprieve from the present?