In another life, he was an ex-Fleet Foxes drummer who transitioned with little fanfare to a career as a sad-sack singer-songwriter known as J. Tillman. Then Josh Tillman had a revelation. “Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones / Couldn’t give me a myth / So I had to write my own,” he sang on his 2012 debut under the name Father John Misty, Fear Fun. “I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J.”
But it was more than a mythic persona. Father John Misty became the protagonist of Tillman’s songs. He gleefully regaled listeners with stories of this outlandish provocateur’s drug-fueled dreams and problematic misadventures, never tipping his hand in terms of a tidy moral judgement for the charismatic cad. Even when he used his own name, it was through the Misty prism — a proxy commenting on the author commenting on the proxy. The character proved to be an effective vehicle for communicating Tillman’s core obsession, that omnipresent human paradox about how we all know that we’re doomed and yet we can’t stop caring about the multitudes of bullshit minutia that swamp us daily. In Misty, Tillman discovered the necessary subterfuge — ironic, sardonic, decadent, untouchable — to smuggle his own relatively straightforward earnestness about the need to love and be loved in an otherwise soul-crushingly ephemeral world.
By 2018’s God’s Favorite Customer, however, the mask appeared to be slipping. The Misty/”Josh Tillman” character now seemed shattered, exhausted, and a little too vulnerable. A song cycle about a dark six-week period in his marriage, the album blurred the line between “Josh Tillman” and the real Josh Tillman like never before. This was no longer a man adopting a pose as both artistic license and personal protection. The myth had been breached, revealing the broken man behind the wall.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the new Father John Misty album out this Friday, Chloë And The Next 20th Century, is the least FJM-centric FJM record yet. In fact, the usual protagonist has gone completely missing. Rather than write about the familiar swaggering anti-hero, Tillman has instead focused on his other made-up characters — the titular “borough socialist” Chloë, a striving entertainment biz creative named Simone, the actress known as Funny Girl, an unnamed pair of ex-lovers who are reunited by their recently deceased cat Mr. Blue. As for revelations about Tillman’s personal life, it appears that the author has (smartly) retreated into the life of a family man who is suddenly averse to oversharing or further exposing himself to a hostile outside world. (This extends to the promotion of Chloë — once a reliable driver of traffic for indie-music sites, he hasn’t given an interview in several years.)
For some long-time followers, this might register as an unwelcome development, like tuning into a new season of Mad Men and noticing that Don Draper no longer is part of the show. As it is, Chloë is by far the least accessible album Tillman has made under the Father John Misty moniker. The easy entry point that the character provided — like Draper, Misty provided both vicarious bad-boy highs and bracing morning-after lows — has gone missing. The album presents Tillman at his most writerly, unfolding more like a collection of short stories observed from a distant remove than the exaggerated autobiography of the previous records. Also, the lustrous folk rock he is known for has been leavened with cocktail lounge jazz and dreamy bossa nova, giving the album a somewhat distant, ghostly vibe that evokes the chilliness of The Shining-era Stanley Kubrick.
This is not, in other words, a record that immediately ingratiates (in the manner of previous FJM albums) with stately piano melodies and gripping revelations about armageddons both personal and universal. It takes a while for these songs to reveal their dazzling charms, but Chloë ultimately is another breakthrough for Tillman — as a lyricist, as a melodicist, as a singer, as a builder of worlds. If concocting the Father John Misty persona was a way for Tillman to transform into something more than just another indie-dude guitar-slinger who stares at his shoes too much, this new album feels like him coming full-circle. After a decade as the hip-swinging, journalist-taunting, and buttons-pushing shaman, he is back to being merely an excellent songwriter.
While Chloë And The Next 20th Century feels like a break from the other Father John Misty albums, it is tethered in one crucial way via Tillman’s long-time collaborator, producer Jonathan Wilson. These men are connected musically over their mutual interest in creating big-sounding (and occasionally even hyperbolic) records. After the relatively stark God’s Favorite Customer, they’re back to filling the sonic frame with loads of expertly executed instrumental tones, including a string quartet and a small orchestra rounded out by trombones, bassoons, oboes, and clarinets.
But whereas I Love You, Honeybear and Pure Comedy could be almost aggressively grandiose, Chloë is markedly gentle, echoing the intricately wrought, story-oriented lyrics. Comparing the stunning “Goodbye Mr. Blue” to Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” is such an obvious observation that Tillman must have welcomed it, but the impossibly warm melange of acoustic guitar, keys, and strings truly speaks to the high level of craft here. Equally lovely is “(Everything But) Her Love,” in which Tillman finally perfects the mellow, semi-psychedelic, post-Pet Sounds SoCal pop sound he’s been chasing since Fear Fun.
The music on Chloë is so consistently beautiful and well-conceived that it can lull you into a false sense of numbness. And that is precisely where Tillman wants you. What felt like a weakness upon my early listens — nothing on the album hits with the emotional directness of “Holy Shit” or the most confessional God’s Favorite Customer songs — gradually turned into a strength as the songs slowly opened up, like a novel that comes together in the final third.
In his previous work, Tillman has exhibited a fascination with how life-changing swings of fate appear suddenly amid the banality of daily existence, often in ways that said banality prevents us from noticing or understanding in the moment. But this theme really comes to the fore on Chloë And The Next 20th Century, with Tillman repeatedly putting his characters in situations they are incapable of comprehending until circumstances overwhelm them. In the title track, a woman who acts as a Benzedrine hookup for the narrator takes a shocking plunge off her balcony on her 31st birthday. In “Q4,” an over-ambitious playwright plagiarizes her own dead sister before being “outed for her privilege.” In “We Could Be Strangers,” a romantic encounter between two ships passing in the night eventually is shown to be a near-death dialogue between two car-accident victims.
These are the kinds of songs that you can see in your head as you hear them, and then long to read on the page once you play them again. Tillman’s ability to craft a witty quip lampooning contemporary discourse cliches remains unmatched — “What’s ‘deeply funny’ mean anyhow?” from “Q4” is a personal favorite — but his eye for narrative details really makes Chloë come alive. I’ve taken to describing verses from this album as scenes, like the part in “Funny Girl” in which the author muses that a young starlet’s “schedule’s pretty crazy / doing interviews / for the new live action Cathy.” I’m now deep enough into the world of this record that a new live action Cathy kind of already exists in my mind.
Whether Chloë And The Next 20th Century marks a new era of Randy Newman-like story songs remains to be seen. But I suspect we won’t be seeing as much of Father John Misty on future Father John Misty albums. The album’s most menacing and ambitious track, “The Next 20th Century,” comes last and points away from all that precedes it. A slow-moving seven-minute synth-pop crawl that erupts into a startling prog-rock guitar solo, the song revisits a theme that Tillman last explored on Pure Comedy, describing a world that’s changed so fast that humans are unequipped to rationalize it, so we instead retreat into an imaginary nostalgic existence fostered by technology, the media, and our own collective narcissism. A 20th century that never ends.
“I don’t know ‘bout you,” he finally sings. “But I’ll take the love songs / if this century’s here to stay / I don’t know ‘bout you / but I’ll take the love songs / and the great distance that they came.” Like the characters in his songs, Tillman doesn’t know the way out, so in the meantime he’s blissing out on the minutia. If transcendence eludes us, perhaps a new myth will do.