A lot needs to be unpacked whenever a new Father John Misty record arrives – that’s the case even when it’s one as good as Chloë And The Next 20th Century, an album of lovelorn orchestral melancholia spiced with the traditional dollop of cynicism. When Misty appeared on the scene with his 2012 debut Fear Fun – one of Uncut’s 300 best albums of the past 25 years – he felt intoxicatingly fresh. There were winding melodies, good looks, a great voice, witty lyrics and playful interviews where he carefully laid out the central conceit: Father John Misty as an exaggerated representation of Josh Tillman’s true self. But as his fame grew, things began to sour. His lyrics, occasionally tipping from incisive to cruel, were dissected, and Tillman would then bite back in interviews and on Twitter. The feedback loop did nobody any favours.
Somebody as culture-savvy as Tillman could sense the trap he was creating, so a few years ago he abandoned social media and stopped conducting extensive interviews, preferring to, as they say, let the music do the talking. But even then he’d still blur the boundary between person and persona, as on “Mr Tillman” from 2018’s God’s Favourite Customer. This led to accusations of pretention, which is ironic as Tillman made his reputation through skewering pretentiousness – including his own, when he’d been recording as folk-worthy J Tillman. And to add to the meta-maze of navel-gaze confusion, nobody is more aware of this than Tillman himself, who consistently interrogates notions of truth, honesty and self-deception, often brilliantly as on God’s…’ “The Songwriter”.
All of which means that listening to any new release from the Father John Misty Extended Universe requires digging through several layers of irony to get to the meat, something that’s either off-putting or kind of fun depending on your outlook. And when you get there? Well, the music itself is often spectacular. With Jonathan Wilson back on production duty, the strings-garlanded Chloë And The Next 20th Century contains a bunch of songs – “Goodbye Mr Blue”, “We Could Be Strangers”, “Buddy’s Rendezvous” – that go right to the gut with their instant melodic charm, and a bunch more – “Kiss Me (I Loved You)”, “Q4”, “Only A Fool”, “The Next 20th Century” – that are deeply striking a few listens later thanks to their sumptuous arrangements, exceptional playing and emotional pull. And that voice! Whether appropriating Nashville via Fred Neill (“Goodbye Mr Blue”), Tin Pan Alley (“Only A Fool”), Elton John balladry (“Buddy’s Rendezvous”) or salsa (“Olvidalo [Otro Momento]”), Tillman weaves a spell.
There’s a sense here of Tillman changing slant somewhat. He’s always written meaningfully about love, but no longer needs to place himself inside every other song, and that distance works to his advantage. Many songs on Chloë And The Next 20th Century are rueful reflections on expired affairs, that old leveller. Even though the bleak, synthy closer “The Next 20th Century” – a complex fantasy that Tillman tells Uncut in a matter-of-fact Q&A is about the “ever-present past” – starts with a Nazi wedding band, it ends with the narrator praising love songs “and the great distance that they came”. Here, Tillman’s own love songs are up there with the best: the gentle adieu of “Kiss Me” is the gem in this collection, but a strong second goes to gorgeous lament “Buddy’s Rendezvous”, which is covered by Lana Del Rey for the record’s deluxe edition.
Undeniably, Tillman spins a great yarn. There are three on Chloë And The Next 20th Century, starting with lively opener “Chloë”, about an obnoxious rich girl who doesn’t give Misty the attention he feels he deserves and ends up taking a leap off a balcony. Later comes “Funny Girl”, a classic Father John Misty ballad – and the one that feels most couched in real life – that recounts an encounter with a female comedian, “a five-foot Cleopatra”, on Letterman. Charming and creepy, the narrator’s infatuation is offset by lines that are, by design, unnecessarily cruel. Then there’s “Q4”, about a woman who appropriates her sister’s tragic backstory for a novel and ends up losing pretty much everything, as well as, kind of hilariously, getting “outed for her privilege”.
While Tillman has Randy Newman’s knack of provoking laughter against better judgment, it’s noticeable that it is women who are again the most frequent butt of his jokes here. Unreliable narrator or not, then, Father John Misty continues to be a bit of a douche bag, even if Josh Tillman himself has written another multi-faceted triumph.