Father John Misty review, Chlöe and the Next 20th Century: A charming, innocuous sojourn into baroque-pop

Chlöe and the Next 20th Century is another shocking left-turn from indie-rock’s chief provocateur: a charming (huh?!), innocuous (gasp!) sojourn into lovely baroque-pop. In vignettes as daintily, darkly comic as a Wes Anderson anthology, Josh Tillman mostly stays out of his characters’ business, swapping villainous screeds and tortured self-scrutiny for quietly mischievous little portraits. Old-Hollywood strings and brass lounge low in the mix, like a bistro band jostling into a waiter’s daydream. To keep you on your toes, album closer “The Next 20th Century” interrupts the programming with an arresting vision of society slow-boiling to death. “Things keep getting worse,” Tillman murmurs, “while staying so eerily the same.”

That lyric could just as well describe the output of most rock showmen entering their forties, but Tillman – and his creation Father John Misty – are reliably slippery. The former Fleet Foxes drummer launched his solo career as a woebegone balladeer, and then – delivered from mediocrity by the romantic misadventures of 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear – manifested as a pseudo-intellectual cad. Pure Comedy, marrying sardonic social commentary and sour troubadour schtick, upped the ante. Then God’s Favourite Customer showed what Tillman stands to lose (his captivating volatility) and regain (our patience) by playing to his low-key strengths.

Though his prankster reputation has softened since he quit interviews and social media around that 2018 album, some notoriety lingers. His fifth record’s dubious portraits of manic, whimsical women slip upon one or two banana skins, similar to Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (one character is “outed for her privilege”, echoing a limp caricature of cancel culture in Trier’s film). But he shares its irresistible observations of domesticity, injecting his own pitch-black humour.

The louche jazz-bar number “We Could Be Strangers” – in which a fatal highway collision cuts short a mediocre date – suggests the narrative impulse of a man who found “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” distastefully cheerful and optimistic. But then a gorgeous folk lament like “Goodbye Mr Blue” comes along, describing lovers reunited by their dying cat, and you see why the women in Tillman’s songs would stick around long enough to inspire some material. Even the biggest taunt – “Forget that lefty s*** your mum drilled in your mind” (“Buddy’s Rendezvous”) – muddies when Tillman gently humiliates the narrator later on.

Yet one of his many contradictions is that, despite expertly probing romance, Tillman is most vital – most uniquely himself – in his other, more irritating mode. It reappears here in that “lefty s***” line, and in his sarcastic request to “recite your history of oppression, babe, while you are under me”. Elsewhere, Chlöe and the Next 20th Century presents Tillman as a sort of jaded Jacques Brel – he is less obnoxious than ever. But as with many good villains, the less I empathise with Father John Misty, the more I care what he has to say.

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