Josh Tillman’s 5th full-length release under the Father John Misty moniker, has Tillman lost the magic that was so present in his previous work?
Father John Misty has been heralded as a writer for our times for a long while now. Tracks such as Total Entertainment Forever, I’m Writing a Novel, and Pure Comedy read like expert critiques of the modern age from the perspective of one particularly psychedelic and troubled individual: Josh Tillman. Tillman adopted the FJM moniker after growing tired of the slow and sad music released under his own name. Fear Fun was the first Father John Misty album in 2012, a trippy lyrical rollercoaster that formed a theme that carried onto his future releases until God’s Favorite Customer in 2018. God’s Favourite Customer saw Tillman become a lot more introspective in his writing, less outwardly observationalist, and instead an outpouring of his own personal struggles.
Now, Chloë and the Next 20th Century. Tillman’s newest release is a telling of stories that aren’t his own, accompanied by film-scoresque productions, bossa-nova, jazz, and orchestra, among other more traditional musical forms.
Track 1 – Chloë
The album opens strong with the track. Tillman as the narrator tells us affectionately about a troubled middle-class socialist in front of a vintage Hollywood-style soundtrack. This is the first time we hear Tillman writing music in this style, and gave us a lot of confidence that he could make this work well.
Track 2 – Goodbye Mr Blue
Goodbye Mr Blue is musically a very typical folk song. There was nothing sonically here that particularly drew us in which was disappointing following the sonic interest developed in the first track. Lyrically the song is still strong, we are told the story of a man and his dying cat, and the links this has to the man’s previous relationship. Like so much of Misty’s work, there is so much to gain from the writing, it’s just a shame the music isn’t as enticing.
Track 3 – Kiss Me (I Loved You)
Kiss Me both reads and sounds like a lackluster love song. Misty provably has the skills to turn familiar concepts and ideas such as the typical love song into something much more abstract and interesting, why he didn’t choose to do so on this track is unknown. The track feels like a ramble, with very little sonically or lyrically to attach to.
Track 4 – (Everything But) Her Love
This track is another that I found musically uninteresting. Misty has committed to this old score style in this album, and so far in my view, he has only pulled this off well in the first track. Lyrically again this feels a bit more simple than what Father John Misty is capable of.
Track 5 – Buddy’s Rendevous
Buddy’s Rendevous is the story of an ex-convict meeting his daughter in a diner and hearing about her life while bitterly lamenting his own lack of presence in it. I found this track far more interesting than the previous three. The track still keeps the orchestra-filled score style of the rest of the album, but here Misty has applied it in a way that feels much more appropriate and enticing.
Track 6 – Q4
Lyrically we get some familiarity from Tillman in Q4. The song is about the exploitation of celebrities for profit, a sentiment we have heard previously in Misty’s work numerous times. Josh Tillman has an incredible ability to achieve a fascinating lucidity in his writing and has again achieved that here. Luckily, the dramatic marching musical style feels just as lucid. Q4 is a welcome increase in energy and colour in what has so far been a group of slower more black-and-white tracks.
Track 7 – Olvidado (Otro Momento)
I found Olvidado to be a really disappointing track. There isn’t really anything gripping going on. Misty softly rambles over a bossa-nova rhythm with the occasional Spanish phrase as in the chorus. A real low point in the album.
Track 8 – Funny Girl
Funny Girl yet again left something to be desired. I’m finding that many tracks on this album are lyrically strong and typical of Misty’s work. Musically however, much of this collection feels colourless and bordering on drab. The song was the first of four singles released for the album, and I was hoping that the surrounding context of the other tracks on the album would increase its appeal, but unfortunately, this has not been the case.
Track 9 – Only A Fool
Like Kiss Me (I Loved You), this track feels like a more typical love song, with less of the nuance typical of Misty’s writing. However, the Parisian-style instrumentation (almost Disneyesque in character) makes this a much more engaging track.
Track 10 – We Could Be Strangers
The vocal production on this one is great, sounding a lot more forward and present, much like FJM’s earlier releases. The story on this track is also really cool, the initial portrayal being of two character’s in a relationship until we discover these are actually two strangers who are both the victims of a car accident.
Track 11 – The Next 20th Century
This is one of my favourite tracks on the album. Each verse is followed by a really striking instrumental break, each one completely varied and really interesting. The song is a journey through a wide range of textures and musical themes, accompanied by Misty singing to us about politics, the entertainment complex (a recurring theme in the artist’s writing), and identity.
All-in-all, I was disappointed by this album. Overall the work lacks the lyrical and sonic lucidity and flavour of his previous releases, with only the occasional track standing out and really feeling like it meets Misty’s potential. Looking at the releases that Josh Tillman has put out under his own name rather than the FJM moniker, Chloë and the Next 20th Century feels like something fitting more into this category than the type of sound that Father John Misty was really created for.