In 2017, Josh Tillman released Pure Comedy, his third album as Father John Misty. It was an extraordinary album that also felt like a full stop. Apparently the work of a man in the throes of an existential crisis – six months before its release Tillman had walked offstage at a festival, complaining that “stupidity just runs the fucking world because entertainment is stupid” – it was filled with self-baiting songs that kept breaking the fourth wall to comment on the album’s potential for success, mock his audience as “manic virginal lust and college dudes” and decry the uselessness of his own lyrics: “That’s just what we all need – another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously.” He’d founded his solo career on obfuscation, continually muddying the question of whether he was being painfully honest or arch and satirical, confessional or writing in character, but it was hard to see how he could come up with anything more dense, knotty and discomfiting than this.
Tillman seemed to agree. Its successor, God’s Favorite Customer, was scaled down and stripped back, its emotional tenor apparently direct. But if anyone thought that meant Tillman had adopted a more straightforward approach to being a singer-songwriter, he isn’t done with big flourishes yet. This follow-up starts with an attention-grabbing wash of muted brass, swooning strings and lightly brushed drums, like a lost song from a pre-second world war musical. It ends with The Next 20th Century, seven minutes of phantasmagorical imagery – involving everything from references to the Bible and Buddhism to Val Kilmer – that conjures up the same end-of-days mood that permeated Pure Comedy: “But none of us here will ever see the promised land … things keep getting worse while staying so eerily the same.”
That opening begins a series of pleasingly specific and beautifully turned genre pastiches, which tend less towards rock’s past than they do to Hollywood (the swing band brass and luscious orchestration of Funny Girl; the booming John Barry-ism of Q4, and Goodbye Mr Blue, a homage to Harry Nilsson’s version of Everybody’s Talkin’ that served as the theme to Midnight Cowboy) or to the MOR that uneasily coexisted with rock in the late 1960s singles chart. Olvidado (Otro Momento) dabbles in the featherweight bossa nova that flourished in the wake of Stan Getz’s collaborations with João Gilberto. With its shimmering tremolo guitars and weeping fiddle, Only a Fool hints not so much at country music as the heavily orchestrated, country-inflected grownup pop that flowed out of United Recording – the LA studio where Chloë and the Next 20th Century was made – in the late 60s. The waltz-time (Everything But) Her Love doesn’t sound like psychedelia, but like the records of that time which acknowledged the changes in pop while being squarely family-friendly: easy listening singles by the Cowsills or Harpers Bizarre that came with the very faintest whiff of patchouli and dope smoke.
It’s an intriguing approach, perhaps intended to suggest that, for all his very 21st century topics – and Chloë and the Next 20th Century features a song about a misery memoir writer who winds up “outed for her privilege” – Tillman’s songwriting is portable, capable of transcending its era. If that is the case, then the album makes a hugely convincing argument. Its tracks are more than knowing facsimiles of vintage styles because they’re uniformly melodically stunning – listen to the chorus of We Could Be Strangers, or the close-miked sigh of Kiss Me (I Loved You). Tillman’s voice sounds fantastic throughout: restrained and bruised.
Lyrically, there are moments when Tillman deals in Randy Newman-ish provocation – “recite your history of oppression, babe, while you are under me” – but mostly, he sticks to telling stories, laden with blackly comic twists. The road accident death of the couple in We Could Be Strangers is presented as a lucky break: about to have sex despite being ill-suited, “at least” it’s saved them from disappointment. The narrator of Chloë is lovelorn for its damaged titular heroine, which doesn’t stop him helping himself to her prescription pills and raising an eyebrow while he does it: “How Benzedrine is supposed to address your shoplifting is anyone’s guess.” On Goodbye Mr Blue, a failing relationship is rekindled by the death of a pet. “This may be the last time I lay here with you,” sings Tillman, anxiously adding: “Do you swear it’s not the cat? You don’t have to answer that.”
But the most telling line of all comes right at the end of The Next 20th Century’s catalogue of horror: “I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the love songs, if this century’s here to stay.” It feels like an artist who’s spent time wondering what the point was, making peace with what he does, even – or especially – if it involves escapism. Sinking into Chloë and the Next 20th Century’s lush, sepia-toned arrangements, escaping with him is a pleasure.
• Chloë and the Next 20th Century is released Friday 8 April
What Alexis listened to this week
Porij – Figure Skating
Drum’n’bass rhythms, softly glowing synths, and sweet My Bloody Valentine-esque vocals: charming.