Listening to Father John Misty it’s easy to get confused, Chloé and the Next 20th Century goes in two different directions at the same time. Musically, the initial moments of Chloé sound like something out of the 30s, bouncy muted horns and piano lead an aural assault remarkably similar to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. Lyrically it treads on slightly different territory as Josh Tillman sings, “Summer ended on the balcony/ She put on Flight of the Valkyries/ At her thirty-first birthday party/ Took a leap into the Autumn leaves.” Clearly there is more to this music than meets the eye or the ear.
Committing a subversive act, creating tunes that incorporate early 20th century music (in association with producer Jonathan Wilson), blended with lyrics that could be ripped out of this week’s headlines (so long as you’re reading the National Inquirer or the Daily Mirror). Within this context Tillman can get away with occasionally being misogynistic, like on ‘We Could Be Strangers’, “This conversation’s at an impasse/ Maybe the future will look brighter undressed.” Somehow, though I doubt it.
The arrangements Wilson provides for Tillman, provide lovely beds for lyrics that don’t pull any punches. The backing strings blend with lyrical guitar on ‘Goodbye Mr. Blue’, leading the tune in one direction while Tillman provides the jabs that hit their mark on what is ostensibly an ode to a dying cat. “This may be the last time/ The last time I put on my shoes/ Go down to the corner/ And buy the damn cat the expensive food.” While Mr. Blue ends up dying in Tillman’s arms, what he really bemoans is a relationship destined not to last.
Tillman ends up being the butt of his own jokes, leavening the sadness of the saxophone on ‘Buddy’s Rendezvous’ while targeting his own frailties. Admitting to things he’s done wrong he doesn’t exactly own the blame, “I’m at Buddy’s Rendezvous/ Telling the losers and old timers/ How good I did with you/ They almost believe me, too.” With “almost” being the most telling word in that line. How can you convince others when you can’t even convince yourself?
You can’t beat ‘The Next 20th Century’ when it comes to fever dreams where truth and lies mix in the most unbelievable ways while still holding more than a grain of truth. Over the course of almost seven minutes Tillman delightfully spills the beans on a wild roller coaster ride of a relationship. Beginning with, “The Nazis that we hired/ For our wedding band/ Played your anthem like I wasn’t there/ For the father/daughter dance.” The song, slightly unhinged, comes with an arrangement featuring brooding strings that hint at untold mysteries before slash and burn guitar and piano lead toward even bigger mysteries including the presence of Val Kilmer.
Reuniting with Jonathan Wilson is masterstroke for Tillman. Nobody has more experience when it comes to coating the apple core to make it go down more palatably, even when the message is not always complementary. Father John Misty offers up Chloé and the Next 20th Century and continues to deliver with music that challenges everything you know, along with way you begin to realize what a weird, strange trip we’re on.