Review Summary: With its nostalgic orchestral production, this album is both an ode to the timelessness of love songs and a dark commentary on the horrific cyclicality of history.
Chloë and the Next 20th Century is the fifth full-length album from Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty), coming a full four years after his last full-length release, 2018's God's Favorite Customer. His piano-driven soft rock on that album continued in much of the same musical aesthetic as his other recent releases, 2017's Pure Comedy and 2015's breakout success, I Love You, Honeybear. Tillman has always been known for his self-referential lyrics, and God's Favorite Customer was no exception there, as the album explored some of his recent personal struggles with depression and the darker elements of his psyche. For example, the album's second track ("Mr. Tillman"), which is sung from the point of view of a concierge at a New York hotel where Tillman had an extended stay following a personal crisis, lobs some self-aware jabs at his own mental state with lines such as "Is there someone we can call? / Perhaps you shouldn't drink alone" and "Jason Isbell's here as well and he seemed a little worried about you."
But four full years between releases--almost certainly driven by the pandemic to some extent--has led to a significant lyrical and musical shift as Chloë and the Next 20th Century completely removes Tillman from the narrative, applying his dark wit instead toward fictional characters from a bygone era. The album's opening track, "Chloë," introduces this shift through a callback to an early 1900s music style with a swinging rhythm and sumptuous orchestral production, making the listener feel as if they have been transported onto the set of a black-and-white film. This sonic aesthetic, rather than being gimmicky, is well-executed throughout the album and blends seamlessly with other elements of Tillman's musical style. "Funny Girl" was my favorite example of this, with the core singer/songwriter piano ballad style being complemented with an intimate upright bass, brushed percussion, and grand orchestral production complete with strings, flutes, and horns. The instrumental break after the second verse in particular adds a lot of character to the song, with the cinematic crescendo of the orchestra being followed by plucked descending string runs that made me feel like I'd been transported 100 years into the past.
While the orchestral elements are woven into most songs on the record, not every song is an ode to the 1920s. Tillman puts on multiple musical outfits from the 20th century throughout this album. The vocal effects on the rainy "(Everything but) Her Love" is reminiscent of the 1960s, immediately bringing to mind the vocal quality of The Beatles. This is followed by "Buddy's Rendezvous," one of my favorite tracks on this LP, that maintains an orchestral backing but simultaneously feels closer in character to the Elton John-esque piano ballads that characterized some of his prior works. The production perfectly complements the morose and longing character of the lyrics, which paints a picture of a father--recently released from prison--who is constantly telling the other "losers and old timers" in the dive bar he frequents about his daughter, who is "pretty as a postcard" and has made it big as a singer. The sense of pride he conveys is overwhelmed by the distance this has been left between them, as he mournfully sings "Everybody's girl / What's the point of being everybody's girl?" and "Whatever happened to the girl I knew?" Another highlight on the album, "Goodbye Mr. Blue," is a more americana-tinged acoustic cut about the death of the protagonists cat, who was the only remnant of a bygone romance.
On its surface, the lyrical content on this record builds a monument to the timelessness of the classic love song, "Kiss Me (I Loved You)" is a slow, swaying, moonlit track, as Tillman uses microphone vibrato to paint the picture of two lovers wrapped in each other's arms, trying to stop time and delay the inevitable as Tillman sings "The end will not befall us / The sky will not descend" and "Our dream / Ended like dreams do / But kiss me / I loved you." This song is one of the slowest on the album but really grew on me over time. "Only a Fool," another slow track featuring retro cinematic production, features some great lines that play on the romantic theme: "The wisdom of the ages / From Gita to Abraham / Was written by smitten, lonely sages / Too wise to ever take a chance." And "Olvidado (Otro Momento)" sees Tillman exploring these themes in Spanish over a bossa nova instrumental, urging the object of the protagonist's affection to "forget it and let destiny decidd" (loose translation).
However, Tillman's penchant for dark subject matter also pervades this album, creating a contrast with the sentimental musical production that would otherwise come off like an ode to a more charming past. "We Could Be Strangers" is the most blatant example of a moment where the rug is pulled out from under the listener. The lyrics through the first verse and chorus paint the picture of two lovers trying to hang on to their romance against the gloomy instrumentation; however, in the second verse it's revealed that the protagonists are actually lying bleeding on the freeway, dying from the fallout of a recent car accident. "Q4," my favorite track on this album, is a social commentary on the entertainment industry's exploitation of tragedy and its tendency to monetize artists' vulnerabilities, later leaving them chewed up and spit out. Tillman uses the story of a fictional author as a vehicle for this commentary, whose works are darkly described as "deeply funny" and "just the thing for their Q4." The final lines of the song see the protagonist left behind after a mental breakdown as Tillman sings over bright and upbeat instrumentation: "Can't see her brother now unsupervised... Her family switched care right when she inquired."
The album's final track, "The Next 20th Century," ties all of these themes together and reveals the nostalgic orchestral production to be simultaneously an ode to the timelessness of love songs as well as a commentary on the cyclicality of history and the humanity's propensity to repeat the horrors that were inflicted throughout the 1900s. This allusion is made directly from the start, as the opening line "The nazis that we hired / For our wedding band" is sung against darkly tinted strings. After the second verse, a dramatic electric guitar line screeches over the backdrop of booming, horror movie-like instrumentation, opening the door for Tillman to sing more unflinchingly dark lines, like "None of us here / Will ever see the promised land / None of us here will be there for / Childhood's end." Love songs are revealed to be a salve that help us escape from (and perhaps ignore) these horrific cycles: "I don't know about you / But I'll take the love songs / And give you the future in exchange."
Chloë and the Next 20th Century is an ambitious album that gives the listener a lot to dig into, and never came across to me as campy or heavy-handed. The slower pace of this record can take a bit of patience to work through, with a few songs that were musical low points for me toward the middle of the tracklist, like "(Everything but) Her Love" and "Olvidado (Otro Momento)." But beyond those two tracks, I liked every other song on this album and found a handful of strong highlights that I can see myself coming back to again and again. The dark wit and wistful production on this record is sure to appeal to both old fans and relative newcomers to Father John Misty.