Father John Misty – ‘Chloë and the Next 20th Century’ review: his imagination runs wild

On album five, Mr Tillman’s ambitious, big band-style visions and bossa nova experiments (yes, really) come to life with thrilling effect

Take your seats: the lights are about to dim before the red curtain swings back: modern indie’s great shapeshifter will soon take the stage. With an orchestral swell of trumpets and twinkling pianos, Father John Misty comes to high-kicking life on ‘Chloë’, the opening track of his fifth album, ‘Chloë and the Next 20th Century’.

The song’s swing rhythm is bolstered by an orchestra section that is purposefully loud, sweeping and indulgent. The American singer even attempts to go full-Judy Garland with a playful inflection that teases a belting vocal delivery. Hell, it’s almost as though he wishfully clicked his heels together three times and landed on a sparkling Broadway set.

But it isn’t really a surprise that the artist, born Joshua Tillman, is not averse to a little razzle-dazzle – he has perhaps always craved this theatrical intensity. His talent – a slyly deprecating songwriter with a rich, Elton John-style tenor – has long felt too gaudy to stay cooped up in the literate and often downcast indie-folk with he made his name on 2012 debut ‘Fear Fun’, an album preceded by a string of tepid solo records released under the name J. Tillman.

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Over his 10-year career as Father John Misty, however, we’ve seen this wild orchid of an artist gradually bloom into a generational singer-songwriter. He truly gained traction with 2015’s ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, Tillman’s gorgeous and epic ode to his real-life relationship, with outlandishly lush arrangements soundtracking grand gestures about romance and being at the mercy of his feelings. Throughout the year that followed, you could barely scroll a Tumblr dashboard without passing the handwritten love note that Tillman’s wife, the photographer Elizabeth, sent him early in their relationship. Its words inspired standout track ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’, an ode to the perfect storm of joy, curiosity and confusion that accompanies falling in love.

Besides its flirtations with big band-style instrumentals, ‘Chloë and the Next 20th Century’ serves as a gorgeously crafted highlight reel of the singer’s many previous styles and guises, rather than a complete reinvention. Much of it is delivered with a wink, and is as dramatically brooding as his past work; every track is vivid yet still quietly dark as it conjures various kinds of lamentation. You only have to look to lead single ‘Funny Girl’, with its exultant violin centrepiece, to realise that Tillman’s sense of scale, too, has become bigger – and more captivating for it.

Across 11 layered and richly rewarding tracks, nearly every corner of Tillman’s discography as Father John Misty is accounted for: ‘Q4’ – a cynical, harpsichord-assisted take on how art is rush-released for profit in the final financial quarter of the year – could have easily slotted onto his existential third album ‘Pure Comedy’, which was also given the full five-star treatment by NME in 2017. The lo-fi sparkle of 2018’s ‘God’s Favourite Customer’, meanwhile, can be found within ‘Everything But Her Love’ and the gentle, reverb-layered ‘Kiss Me (I Loved You)’. On the latter, Misty mourns the breakdown of a relationship with a regretful falsetto.

Tillman has previously joked about trying to elude the accrued weight of his fictional identity, reducing it in interviews to “a sarcastic Michael Bublé ”, and has expressed a desire to create clearer demarcation between the character of Misty and Tillman, the musician. We see that on this album, as a handful of largely unadorned songs display the bare bones of his songwriting. ‘Goodbye Mr Blue’ (which sounds like the late Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ reworked for 2022), for example, emphasises its plea for stable domesticity with harmonies so intricately layered that Tillman sounds like he’s accompanied by a choir of himself. “Go down to the corner and buy the damn cat the expensive food,” he sings. “That Turkish Angora’s ‘bout the only thing left of me and you”. 

Where Misty’s previous records (particularly the aforementioned ‘Pure Comedy’) zoned in on the human condition and big, complex questions surrounding love, growth and mortality, his lyrics are more direct this time around. Before a mighty electric guitar solo jolts into life, Tillman contemplates how he steers towards music to avoid facing reality: “I don’t know ‘bout you / But I’ll take the love songs / If this century’s here to stay”. It’s perhaps the closest we’ve ever got to the person behind Father John Misty.

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‘Chloë and the Next 20th Century’ showcases what Tillman’s imagination can do when it is set free to explore new and unpredictable sonic paths. ‘Olvidado (Otro Momento)’, a shimmying bossa nova track that sees him sing in Spanish, never settles entirely, expanding its woozy ambience into a thick beat made up of quietly vast percussive flourishes. It’s a perfect example of how nothing on this album ends up quite where you’d expect it – including the ever-evolving artist who made it.

Details

Release date: April 8

Record label: Bella Union

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