Father John Misty finds some inner peace on Josh Tillman’s fifth studio album.
Unlike many rock stars – not that the term quite applies here – Josh Tillman has usually set the entry price quite high for listeners.
His Father John Misty persona has been a series of constructs which have traced over his personality in sidelong fashion; tainted with cynicism, decadent but articulate and sometimes laugh out loud funny, here was the 20th century singer-songwriter epitomised in the guise of a man of who hated the idea with a passion.
This self-fulfilling hubris ran amok on his third album Pure Comedy, although as is their want a flock of critics turned that supposed weakness into a point of relatability, but it’s follow up God’s Favorite Customer was melancholy in turn, doused with the consequences of hangovers as a pastime.
Four rather eventful years have elapsed since, but whilst Tillman’s general antipathy towards his former bandmates in Fleet Foxes appears to have dissipated, the thirst for doing the opposite of what you might expect will it seems never be quenched.
After a reunion with long-time collaborator Johnathan Wilson, and recorded in part at LA’s United Studios – former customers include Frank Sinatra and Glen Campbell – Chloë And The Next 20th Century is a collection of songs which explore the rapidly dwindling arts of arrangement and production, drawing on archaic props like ragtime, burlesque and many other pins in old Americana’s fading map.
Tillman clearly has more potential to lose than in this meta considering the boneyard of failed attempts by other voices but then again, his alter-ego it seems has never really considered such a thing as odds.
On his side as ever though is an almost stoic belief in his right to be there; gently crooning Opener Chloe sounds like something which might be played at the Overlook Hotel when the ghosts were on a night off, but the heroine is dismissed as a ‘Borough socialist’ and the narrator himself duly fills his pockets with drugs supplied by ‘her unscrupulous therapist’.
She isn’t the only object of his affections however, as the subject of Funny Girl is praised with, ‘You’re transformed into a five-foot Cleopatra’, and then snarked, ‘you’re young, but baby you’re not getting younger’, whilst the pit plays slow and mellow.
As if imperilled, complicated love has no real definition, Q4 follows a similar outline whilst the strings charge both its triumphs and tragedies, feelings of in between with little substance and even less comfort.
If being world-baitingly surreal constitutes a trusted default here, then we’re certainly in the right Tiki bar. The achingly gentle bossa of Olvidado (Otro Momento) floats on a Rio breeze as Tillman tries to enchant with a twist of Spanish, whilst the countryfied Goodbye, Mr. Blue in part agreeably subverts Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin.
If you accidentally stopped by searching for simplicity of pop on its own terms, or in an attempt to try and get the joke, there’s little succour here; closer The Next 20th Century maps out, over nearly seven minutes, a past future in which Val Kilmer inhabits the same arc as a Nazi wedding band, but amongst the seeds of our destruction being harvested at least sounds an acquiescent, nearly optimistic note with: ‘I’ll take the love songs, if this century’s here to stay’.
Resignation is never a good look but on Chloë And The Next 20th Century, Father John Misty sounds as close to making peace with life, as much as the idea seems devilishly uncool.
It’s formed from the bones of another era, but these modern antiques represent the author’s salty yarns at their idiosyncratic best.