Doomed love songs for the pseudo-nostalgic

Father John Misty’s post Chloë and the Next 20th Century: Doomed Love Songs for the Pseudo-Nostalgic appeared first on Consequence.

“What does ‘deeply funny’ mean anyway?” asks father John Misty on “Q4”, a single from Chloe and the Next 20and Century. The song is the clearest and sharpest satire on the album, but this question seems serious, the stakes intimate for the singer – as a performer and someone looking for a connection in a modern wasteland.

Across five albums, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman has been a craftsman of story songs delivered via absurd characters, crafting tongue-in-cheek provocation with heartfelt croons and soaring folk-inspired instrumentation. On Chloesinger-songwriter Josh Tillman returns with his first new material since 2018’s taciturn God’s Favorite Customer. Written and recorded in Fall/Winter 2020, the album sees Tillman continue to collaborate with multi-instrumentalist/producer Jonathan Wilson and engineer Dave Cerminara.

The eleven tracks often sound like music from mini-movies, with arrangements by Drew Erickson and lots of strings, brass and woodwinds. Tillman still deals with smart, allusive vignettes, but the tone is ultimately softer this time around, blurrier and less incisive than Gods or the Trump era of 2017 Pure comedy.

For a troubadour who presents himself as a “sarcastic Michael Bublé”, the turn towards a more golden melancholy is effective. The album opens with a curdled horn line and a relentless big band arrangement for the “Chloë” character study, and the listener thinks, Here comes the self-ironizing parlor lizard, sounding like the Beatles-doing-vaudeville. (Which, to be honest, we really like.) But the next track, “Goodbye, Mr. Blue,” veers into a sad, sunny Harry Nilsson tune on Laurel Canyon guitar, the lyrics brooding over the end of a relationship coinciding with the death of a cat. Lines like “One down, eight left, but that’s no less true / Doesn’t the last time come too soon?” are really funny – and really sad.

Highlights of the album include “Buddy’s Rendezvous,” a lament on a bed of jazzy horn musings, as Tillman patiently ponders a few fine lines. “Q4” is an optimistic baroque number, an indictment of “airport autofiction” and an exchange of human tragedy – our own and that of others – for capital and critical acclaim. It’s hard not to hear how lyrics like “ironic distance kept her sane” reverberate against Tillman’s own artistic positioning.

The instrumentation and arrangements of Chloe remember the soundtracks and panoramas of Hollywood romantic thrillers of the Carey-Grant era. Like these scores, the music evoked past eras and moods – swing, big band, western, jazz, Tin Pan Alley – but is dutifully separated from “the real thing”. Tillman himself, as father John Misty, often cuts a figure like this leading man, squinting wryly and pathetically at the love interest and the camera. The cinematic scenes worked here are not meant to be full narratives; they are more like writer William Trevor’s definition of the short story: “the art of insight…its strength lies in what it omits as much as in what it puts in.”

Closer album “The Next 20th Century” is the only song that obviously doesn’t reference a past musical era, but it carries the scope and gravitas of late career Dylan’s finest (another self-proclaimed crooner). The meditation meanders through harsh industrial crescendos, an understated bossa nova beat, and lyrical references to Nazis, Val Kilmer, and “jeembles” — the personal slang used by Tillman to describe his visceral negative reaction to the entertainment complex. The song, and the album, are punctuated with a thesis that is less an ethical statement than a momentary plea: “I don’t know about you / But I’ll take the love songs / And give you the future in exchange.”

Despite all their evocations, the dream landscapes on Chloe are not really nostalgic. Instead, the songs seem to emphasize the artist’s gallows humor in the face of our collective fate, rehearsing various destructions of humanity – both on the scale of an endless century and every story of ‘love.

Essential tracks: “The Next 20th Century”, “Goodbye, Mr. Blue”, “Q4”

Take in Father John Misty’s tour; tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

Essential tracks:

Chloë and the following 20th century Album artwork:

Chloë and the next work of the 20th century

Father John Misty’s Chloë and the Next 20th Century: Doomed Love Songs for the Pseudo-Nostalgic
Katie Moulton

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Grace D. Erickson