I’ll start by saying that I’ve always run a little hot and cold on J. Tillman’s Father John Misty albums. I’ve been following him since his debut Fear Fun, and really started to love him with I Love You, Honeybear. But I've had declining interest in his albums since then. The tunes are usually well written, and I’ve always enjoyed the timbre of his voice. It always comes down to the level of snark associated with each project. Honeybear, sounded saccharine sweet on the first listen. However, on relistening to the album I felt like it opened me up to Tillman’s Father John Misty character. The following albums took the FJM character to a new level. The lyrical double takes morphed into insults and the occasional blatant pessimism. Each album more exasperated than the last. I always thought that Father John Misty could be one of my favorite songwriters if he could drop the lectures and get back to writing songs that left me feeling less guilty about my acute averageness. I think Father John Misty’s new album makes some giant steps in that direction.
In April, J. Tillman released his fifth full length album under the Father John Misty moniker. Chloë and the Next 20th Century sees Tillman take his witty banter to the stage, with a collection of heavily orchestrated love songs. Tillman plays the (familiar) part of unlovable male, while Chloë remains a bit of a mystery described on the song "Funny Girl" as “five-foot Cleopatra” that “charmed the pants off Letterman”. It’s clear that this album is a love album, but to whom is up for interpretation. The lyrics "Buddy’s Rendezvous" can be interpreted as the Father John Misty character singing to his estranged daughter or an old lover. Either storyline is effective in making the listener shudder when hearing “My destruction is an hour late, I’m at Buddy’s Rendezvous. Tellin’ the losers and old timers how good I did with you”. The tragic storytelling and cynicism that crops up throughout the album is much more palatable when the listener is guided to their logical conclusion in song, versus the accusatory tone of previous albums.
The instrumentation featured across the album pays homage to the big band orchestras of the thirties and forties, with some songs featuring light, accompanying strings while others feature horn sections, timpani, vibraphones and any other instrument that could have fit on the band stand. The one departure, sonically, is in the albums closer, the "Next 20th Century," that prominently features the electric guitar destroying the soundscape that was set up by the previous 10 songs, effectively ending the nostalgia induced coma provided by these songs.
I love this album. I think that J. Tillman’s songwriting transferred over to the bandstand extremely well. Sometimes a good tune can get produced, or orchestrated to death, these songs are still tight, well written and witty, signatures of a great Father John Misty song. The lyrical departure was a huge improvement over previous records, as I’ve alluded to. I’m afraid to see the album get hung up with listeners because of the instrumentation and because of the down tempo nature of the whole record. Even for a Father John Misty project, this album is sedate. Personally, many of my favorite albums fall between melancholy and lightly spirited, so I have plenty of room in my heart for this new album.