Album Review: Father John Misty – Chloë and the Next 20th Century

[Sub Pop/Bella Union; 2022]

There has been a clear development of Josh Tillman’s public persona since switching to the moniker Father John Misty. The project’s debut album Fear Fun was a relatively low-budget and raw expression of the man himself, doing away with the folky trappings of J. Tillman and simply having fun. I Love You, Honeybear was the perfection of the balance between acidic observer and lovable seductress – which concluded with the meeting of his wife. Buoyed by the success of that album, but now without his promiscuous proclivities to inspire, True Comedy was his attempt to cement himself as indie’s chief cultural commentator – but it was bloated, to say the least. God’s Favorite Customer, released only a year later, felt like a course correction: he turned the spotlight back on himself, but with more compassion.

Now we have Chloë and the Next 20th Century, and, having been made to wait four years, it’s not a great surprise that Misty has made his biggest shift yet – while still maintaining his own unmistakable aura. Tillman the man is absent from the lyrics (at least explicitly), as the songwriter instead decides to pen a series of short stories about characters of his own creation. “I’m writing a novel, because it’s never been done before,” he archly announced on Misty’s debut album, and it seems his proclivities for writing fiction have now resurfaced here.

To aid in bringing these tales into vivid being, orchestral arrangements and genre forays abound throughout the album. While string arrangements have appeared on previous Father John Misty albums, they’ve never been so prominent, glitzy and cinematic as they are here, thanks to composer Drew Erickson. Their liveliness and diversity speak for the impish narrator just as much as the words themselves.

While he’s still delivering his wry observations of modern life, they’re presented in bitesized stories, and Misty seems genuinely excited to be singing about something less grounded in truth for a change. As bobbing golden era strings and woodwinds open the album, you can practically hear him pirouetting onto the stage with showman-like glee. His tripping syllables perfectly bounce atop the burbling notes as he unwinds a character portrait of the titular “Chloë”, the silvery violins and cartoonish horns bringing life to his tale of a haphazard woman who’s a “borough socialist” that puts “Flight of Valkyries” on the stereo to celebrate (or commiserate?) her birthday. When he declares “the more they abhor you / the more I adore you,” he may be speaking through the song’s narrator, but it’s clear in the delivery that Misty genuinely does truly enjoy and empathise with his creation.

This pathos runs through the album, with Misty’s sardonic side less evident – though still very much present in brilliantly winking asides. Take, for example, the second song “Goodbye Mr. Blue”, where he echoes the tones of Cat Stevens as his narrator rakes over the coals of a broken relationship while tending to his dying cat – the one that he and his former partner bought together. While his warming voice and the delicate arrangement ensure the story evokes no shortage of sympathy, he also subtly reveals that the character is more sad about himself than his dead pet when he comments “maybe if he’d gone sooner / could’ve brought us back together last June.” 

Chloë and the Next 20th Century is full of little details like this that will be picked up on repeat listens, but it shifts Misty’s sound away from the bombastic folk troubadour, which may reduce its immediate impact for some. However, it only takes a few listens for the glamorous swoon of the orchestral stylings to really settle, and once it does you’ll soon find yourself floating in the moonlight alongside Misty, watching these hapless characters go about their lives.

Some of the songs are among the most romantic he’s ever written, and it’s a realm that perfectly suits his gorgeously powerful yet tender vocal timbre. Highlights include the sheer Hollywood heartbreak of “Kiss Me (I Loved You)” and the bossa nova flirtation that is “Olvidado (Otro Momento)”, both of which create glistening bubbles that capture a brief moment of unguarded and intense attraction. On the other hand there’s “(Everything But) Her Love”, which has plenty of lush instrumentation but stays in a holding pattern bobbing away under Misty’s relatively mundane tale of domestic affection.

His tales fare better when there’s a pressure point or bone of contention at hand, where you can tell Misty is genuinely rooting for his subjects, like the frustrated author of the sprightly “Q4” and the couple entwined in an awkward hook up on “We Could Be Strangers”. “Buddy’s Rendezvous” is a clear highlight where mournful horns and shimmering strings create a reflective atmosphere fitting the low-lit bar of the title. You can practically hear the protagonist’s long, vacant stare as he recalls regretful memories about a long lost woman who’s now made a name for herself; “telling losers and old timers how good I did with you… they almost believe me too,” he laments. The song has a partner in the similarly slow and sparkling “Funny Girl”, where the protagonist is a shark-like “industry outsider” who’s had his eye on the rising star ever since she “charmed the pants off Letterman” and thinks he can offer her something more. Poetically, he gets stood up at their date (if he even really contacted her at all).

Misty seems to have found a new lease of life by pointing his pen away from himself for his fifth album. With Erickson’s arrangements augmenting his tales at every beat, they become immersive emotional explorations. Not every entry is gripping, and their mileage will depend on how much time you’re willing to settle in and let them wash over you, but overall it’s an impressively graceful skip into a new era for the songwriter. The version of Father John Misty that wanted everyone to hear his every witticism has been left behind. This more matured version is waiting for you to join him in the smoker’s lounge – and, boy, does he have some stories to tell when you get there.