Selected ambient works: Dreamy yet sharp, ‘Chloe and the Next 20th Century’ leaves the old Father John Misty’s antics behind

A portrait of Father John Misty within a series of blue rectangles growing in size.
(Jadyn Lee • The Student Life)

Father John Misty, once declared a “convivial (if polarizing) chronicler of society’s growing absurdity,” is back. 

The man behind Father John Misty, Josh Tillman, is a highly-acclaimed modern staple of folk music — as well as one of the most proficient trolls of the music industry today. In his latest work, “Chloë and the Next 20th Century,” Tillman seems intent on finally backing away from his highly sardonic persona and shenanigans, delivering a gorgeous album that is centered simply on telling stories. In contrast to past work, which often focused on Father John Misty’s persona, Tillman explores the absurdity of our times through the lens of stories with new characters. 

Misty is no stranger to controversy. Since leaving his drummer post with folk rock band Fleet Foxes in 2012, he’s been a sort of antagonizer of popular culture, known for his constant criticisms of American media. The folk singer is intent on speaking his mind, whether he’s calling out pop singers who don’t write their own music (some of whom he works with) or television commercials that ruin catchy tunes in the name of capitalism. 

This notoriety saw its peak with the release of “Pure Comedy” in 2017, a body of work that delves deeply into the madness of our times, hinged especially on the election of Donald Trump in the United States. After referring to elected officials as “goons” and “clowns” on the title track, Misty takes aim at virtual reality, conceptualizing “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” on “Total Entertainment Forever.” Despite his objective to condemn the dark ways in which technological innovation has manifested, the lyrics earned him much criticism

Music critics at the time wondered if such antics could be considered a form of “bloodsport, indulged in by a certain kind of entitled male star” such as Tillman. Perhaps for this reason, Father John Misty has taken a step back from this highly self-aware, mischievous persona on “Chloë and the Next 20th Century,” and yet, the quality of his work hasn’t suffered a bit. 

The album is a masterclass in exploring wildly different sounds and doing all of them excellently. Despite their disjointed stories and varied sounds, each track is united by their shared gorgeous and complex production, whether it be through lush strings or delightful jazz arrangements. 

Opening the album with “Chloe,” a track that sounds straight from a 1930s Hollywood show, Misty then takes a page out of Harry Neilson’s playbook on “Goodbye Mr. Blue,” going all in on that highly recognizable ’70s folk rock sound. Both tracks tell vivid stories; the first describing a drug-addicted “borough socialist” in Hollywood who meets an unfortunate end with a suicidal leap, and the latter centered on a couple reunited by the death of their cat. 

Elsewhere, the sweet and sour stories keep on coming, like on “Funny Girl,” where Tillman writes fondly of a highly charismatic yet uninterested celebrity: “You seem pretty indifferent / But you knocked me out when you charmed the pants off Letterman.” 

The album’s jazz influence can be heard clearly on an album standout, “Buddy’s Rendezvous,” detailing a father who goes to give “shitty advice” to his estranged daughter. On it, he directs her to “Forget that lefty shit your mom drilled in your mind” and ponders, “Whatever happened to the girl I knew?” With this track, Tillman even treats listeners to a collaboration with alternative legend Lana Del Rey, which includes a version of “Buddy’s Rendezvous” sung by Del Rey on the deluxe vinyl. 

The album closes with yet another sonic departure, with rare synths and sprawling guitar solos filling listeners’ ears on “The Next 20th Century.” As is routine with Father John Misty, the track speaks to the absurdity of human existence as well as how to cope with it: “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.” With this, we see that Tillman hasn’t abandoned the ethos of Father John Misty as a musical project. If anything, his decision to detach from the persona only makes his social commentary more visible. 

“Chloë and the Next 20th Century” feels like the most powerful display of Josh Tillman’s capabilities, and that is not to detract from his terrific catalog of past work. He proves that he doesn’t need to rely on media stunts or highly sardonic, auto-biographical lyracism to deliver an album that listeners will love. Here, we get 51 minutes of beautiful storytelling, with luscious tunes and sharp social commentary to accompany it. 

Nicholas Black PO ’24 is from Rochester, New York. After this album’s release, he will no longer be deleting Father John Misty streams from his Last.fm.

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