Following up on the fantastic, lost weekend-inspired, 2018 release, God’s Favorite Customer, Father John Misty (aka Jonathan Tillman) turns to old-timey big band/jazz orchestras of the 1930s for inspiration and these restrained sounds produce his most cohesive musical album yet. The soft tones, production, and black and white photos delivered on Chloë and the Next 20th Century set an immediate retro tone, that at times becomes a bit sleepy, but never loses its artistic focus.
The joy of Misty is his teetering on the line of universal truth and biting sarcasm around big sounds. On the glorious swelling of a tune like “Kiss Me (I Loved You)” the pleas are honest and desperate, infusing the song with heart and aching longing. However, in the opener “Chloë” Tillman takes those same big band-inspired strings, and woodwinds and turns up the cutting lyrics on a woman with a “pitch-black expanse” of a soul.
Misty the character always works best when he is diving into his favorite subject, Tillman himself. Chloë and the Next 20th Century mixes in a few outward-looking tunes and while the lyrics are smart, heartfelt, ironic, and engaging, there isn’t as much of a visceral connection as he provided on his best efforts (God’s Favorite Customer, I Love You, Honeybear). Perhaps that can be attributed to the hypnotic sounds, as this release is all about the musical tone and theme flowing from one gorgeously relaxed soundscape to the next.
The soft acoustic picking on the expansive country-influenced “Goodbye Mr. Blue” is the most affecting track as it links the death of a pet to the death of a relationship with feeling while “Q4” is a less successful take on the entertainment industry absurdness. While always influenced by Harry Nilsson and The Beatles (the light carnival touches and melody of “(Everything But) Her Love” feels like a scaled back Fab Four effort) there is a sense of Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles pirate persona in the saxophone aided “Buddy’s Rendezvous”.
Tillman uses Spanish lyrics and flair on “Olvidado (Otro Momento)” as gorgeous trumpet work wraps up the tune while the whimsy sashays around “Only A Fool”. “Funny Girl” amps the pomp and circumstance about a missed love affair with a comedic actress and the perfectly suited strings and nightclub jazz warbles color “We Could Be Strangers” as Misty yearn for connections.
Closer “The Next 20th Century” shifts gears for a return to his Pure Comedy phase as Misty meshes modern-day absurdity into historic atrocities. Going over the top in ominous fashion singing about imperialism, slavery, rape, and other sins (as well as Val Kilmer’s Batman) around scratching electric guitar and haunting strings. It is an odd way to end an album that is so meticulously constructed and feels misplaced.
Tillman as Father John Misty seems to be constantly grappling with the world and his place in it. Creating this retro, cinematic album allowed him to escape for a time into Chloë and the Next 20th Century, but the real world is always waiting to break his heart.