A public game of provocation and condemnation
Review: Chloe and the Next 20th Century, Father John Misty
Father John Misty – real name: Josh Tillman – was raised in a strict conservative evangelical household where he was not permitted to listen to any ‘secular’ music, getting by with the likes of Bob Dylan’s gospel albums. He has been critical of religion and the church, but from the experience of being traumatically inside, rather than misunderstanding it from the outside.
His reaction to Christianity is mostly against a false religiosity and a kind of faith bent to fit the individual, as is often the case with American Christianity. Basically now an atheist, he nevertheless spends a lot of time throwing barbed questions at the Deity and says if there is a God, He can probably handle the tough questions, which include why America is in such a mess, and why Christianity is often complicit with it. Ironically, he often sounds religious in his outrage at the prevailing culture.
The Father John Misty persona – a word he doesn’t like, preferring simply ‘stage name’ – allows him to speak, perhaps paradoxically, with more directness about life and the falsity of contemporary culture, albeit with a twinkle in his eye. But, often contradictory, he is also adamant he is no self-righteous prophet, but is simply expressing his frustration, often highly publicly, coming from the often-compromised place of his personal life. He plays a strange, vicious cycle public game of provocation and condemnation, with perhaps a little too much introspection. The songs, he says, at least allow him to ask difficult questions about love and society with a bit more clarity. Best to focus on the songs, then.
Which brings us to the surprising new album. Where the previous ones had the feel of 70s rock (I hear a lot of Elton John), Chloe and the Next 20th Century harks back further to showtunes and the Broadway jazz of mid-century. The album, which takes its name from simply adding together the names of the first and last tracks, seems like a noir soundtrack for a romantic movie set in New York in the rain. Rather than ‘Frankie and Johnny’, it’s ‘Chloe and Johnny’. It features lush strings, muted trumpets, pattering blues rhythms and dreamy stories of lost love.
Most of the album is set in vaudeville or a smoky bar. ‘Olvidado’ is celestial, string-laden Latin jazz – think Diana Krall’s ‘Look of Love’. ‘Chloe’ begins with muted trumpet, brushes and a jolly piano figure, gradually adding glockenspiel, swelling strings, flute and a horn section (not to mention some smart-aleck lyrics). ‘Funny Girl’ and ‘Buddy’s Rendezvous’ are lush, slower torch songs, both seemingly about some famous girl he (or whoever is the song’s protagonist) is hoping to meet up with but doesn’t. The former song, which seems written as a slow interlude for a Broadway musical, seems aimed at a Zooey Deschanel-type (or maybe Aubrey Plaza, who shows up in one of his videos), in the style of George Michael’s ‘Kissing a Fool’ or even Michael Buble, with our hero dreaming she would ‘flash that manic smile in my direction’. In the latter tear-jerker he tells the ‘losers and old-timers’ at some bar about a girl he may or may not have had a relationship with. ‘They almost believe me’, he croons.
‘Only a Fool’ is something Cole Porter may have spun out, other songs approach Rodgers and Hammerstein, even if he’s not quite in that stratosphere. He’s not quite Sinatra either, but neither is he Bob Dylan (and here I am thinking of Dylan’s woeful Shadows in the Night attempt at the jazz songbook). The caramel tone and gentle delivery put him in Chet Baker territory.
One exception to the lounge jazz is ‘Goodbye Mr Blue’, a song about a dead cat. He’s been compared to Harry Nilsson before, and it’s as if he’s thought, well, let’s go the whole hog, and the song sits just this side of rip-off, the opening picked acoustic guitar, snare patter and, importantly, melody lifted from Nilsson’s ‘Everyone’s Talking’. Of course, it’s very pleasant.
The other exception is the self-indulgent closer, ‘The Next 20th Century’, a seven minute ramble (in a ‘Leaving LA’-kind of way) about the sky falling in. It’s a string and keyboard slow burn, moodily exploiting shifts from major to minor, until a buzzsaw guitar rudely interrupts, for dramatic effect and a not exactly enjoyable experience. It references Val Kilmer stalking airports, going very off-track, if it was ever on-track. Amidst the apocalyptic blues, he praises the simple pleasures of love songs. I’m not sure it needs to be an either/or proposition, but the following line may sum up well his overall attitude: “I’ll take the love songs and give you the future in exchange.”
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