Singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman (A.K.A Father John Misty) returns with Chloë and the Next 20th Century, his fifth studio album, which reaches back into sounds rooted in the golden age of film noir. The arrangements are lush and almost theatrical — a swinging pulse lives in the lower part of each track that commands a visceral response from the listener. Chloë and the Next 20th Century is orchestrated as film noir in its own right, a story of an unfeeling man-killer, sordid affairs and entanglement in doomed romances that you can’t help but become engrossed in.
From the first blare of muted, brassy trumpets, the opening track “Chloë” holds an irresistible gravitational buoyancy — the orchestral stylings swing to and fro in the sonic space, making it nearly impossible not to sway alongside it. “Chloë” is a borough socialist who listeners can’t help but find entirely enchanting and endearing, though her last lover met a mysterious end at her hand. Lustrous strings flit in and out of the mix, dusting “Chloë” in a shimmering glamor that makes her undeniable.
You can feel love blooming and opening up like a spring flower in “Kiss Me (I Loved You)” and “Only A Fool.” Infatuation becomes a shimmering veil that douses all it touches with hopeless romance; with time you come to realize that the veil is really a shroud, a death sentence. All the love that was ever offered was broken and doomed, as you too are doomed. Violins and reed instruments grace each track with an amorous tint, like the glow of candlelight, making each a touchable tale of the heart.
“Olvidando (Otro Momento)” contains an almost bossa nova-esque quality to it, and “Funny Girl” would not be so out of place on a Broadway stage. “Goodbye Mr. Blue” is what feels like a love song and a last goodbye to a dying cat. But “Q4” is perhaps the most memorable track on the record — its sweeping instrumentals, full of all kinds of color and texture, ebb and flow seamlessly in the track. At the album release concert at The Barbican in London, Tillman describes the phrase “deeply funny” as a firsthand account of extreme human misery. Here, Tillman’s “deeply funny” take is on the consumption and creation of art for profit, to be chewed up and spit out before the masses move on to some newer sensation only moments later. It is a dialogue of art and privilege — whether good art can come from privilege or “deeply funny” tragedy is required and whether art itself is tragedy.
The record closes out with “The Next 20th Century,” and for a body of work with such a variety of textures and colors, Tillman’s exit feels quite blasé and boneless. A synth drones on for several stanzas, leaving the track feeling quite colorless before a white hot electric guitar solo rips through the center near the halfway mark. Despite this brief revelation into color and sound, “The Next 20th Century” settles back into the featureless dirge before quitting at six minutes and 56 seconds. At this point of the storyline, the glamour of artistry is gone — a film is rolling for an empty theater, a symphony is playing for an audience of none. Entertainment is fleeting, and those that devote their lives to it will suffer a bleak ending. This is a cinema for the disenchanted.
Though the storytelling is quite charming and often sordid, the stories contain occasionally unintelligible references and innuendos (I can’t even begin to unpack the references to fascism here). Some of the less favored tracks could be deeply cerebral and witty, but if listeners don’t have an extra 51 minutes to spare, the nuances of the record become much less accessible. In that same vein, the album lacks narrative continuity, or clear context where the stories fit in among one another — we lose a bit of intention in the jumble of confusion that exists between the tracks.
But that same unintelligibility can be seen as a great strength of the album — it is not meant to be read like a script. The storylines remains open, allowing listeners to dream up whatever endings they desire for our dear Chloë, Mr. Blue and the droves of other characters that we meet along the way.
Chloë and the Next 20th Century is hopelessly romantic, fraught with doomed love and heartache and flawed characters who don’t feel so unlike ourselves. The record is more than a simple listening experience. Each track maintains a film-like quality and debonair delivery that makes even the oddest characters touchable. Joshua Tillman and collaborator Drew Erickson reach into genres that few have dared to touch, and they do it with immense control and poise. Father John Misty brings us as close to a cinematic journey as music can get — the record feels nostalgic and timeless, as if it were composed by a renowned film auteur whose work deserves to be played again and again.
Daily Arts Writer Claire Sudol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.