No one is immune to nostalgia. Not even the armchair philosophers. Not even Josh Tillman.
Fractals of sticky-sweet Americana fade in and out of Chloë and the Next 20th Century, the fifth LP from Josh Tillman, performing as Father John Misty. Martinis and Coca-Colas flow, Gatsby’s green light flickers and black and white celluloid film projects a polyester, washed-up American dream that, even in the 21st century, is all too familiar.
The name of the record, a departure from Tillman’s more cryptically-titled previous releases, is quite literal. It’s “Chloë” and “The Next 20th Century” and everything in between. Yet, its exterior baseness is not to be conflated with penetrability — the album is quintessentially Tillman, teeming with “L.A. crass” and “Infinite Jest”-toting philosophical musings.
Chloë and the Next 20th Century plays out like a 50 minute long stand-up set, where all the jokes poke fun at some fixture of past or present American zeitgeist. By now it’s been well established that, to Tillman, it’s all “Pure Comedy.” Part of this comedy lies in Tillman’s absurdity. The titular “Chloë” is an archetypal hot girl on Twitter: a Benzo-addicted kleptomaniac and “borough socialist” whom he sings about with an obverse debonair croon.
“Q4” similarly straddles two centuries. The track is more sweeping and cinematic than Tillman’s subdued jazz standards that score his world of mass culture and glitzy artifice. The singer follows a writer named Simone, who writes “little of much consequence”: pulpy, marketable autofiction. In addition to being neutered of artistic merit, there’s a suggestion that Simone’s work is more insidious, exploiting her sister’s life all in service of garnering empty, unmeaning praise. “Deeply funny” was the rave refrain,” Tillman sings.
To subscribers of The New Yorker and Twitter drama alike, the premise of “Q4” is eerily reminiscent of “Cat Person,” a 2017 short story that ignited debates about the ethics of autofiction. It’s unclear whether the “Cat Person” fallout inspired the track. Regardless of whether the story served as inspiration, it offers a framework of where Tillman’s interests lie, temporally. Chloë and the Last 20th Century, for all its bandstand balladry and vintage bells and whistles, situates itself firmly in the present.
The most compelling and carefully rendered aspect of the record is its miniature stories — imaginative, specific and tightly contained. Yet, they also sow the seeds of its downfall. Tillman simply endeavors to do too much on Chloë and the Next 20th Century. It’s a powder keg of macro and micronarratives that just barely manages stasis.
Musically, the record veers sharply in the opposite direction of his previous folk-rock endeavors. Tillman’s striking lyrical ability often feels like compensation for homogenous, milquetoast chord progressions and banal guitar slaps. On Chloë and the Next 20th Century, there’s a little more instrumental fat to grab onto: Smokey trumpets and velveteen strings back Tillman’s liquid-smooth lilting, rather than the usual “Your Favorite Coffeehouse” suspects.
Artistic prowess aside, Tillman has a nagging tendency to patronize his listeners. His railing against modern culture occasionally feels like a Bo Burnham tune, but grown-up and carrying a patent leather briefcase. In an interview with Pitchfork in 2017, Tillman said of his artistic style: “If music was made by some kind of critical theorist, it would sound like my music.” Five records deep, and he remains unable to fathom the possibility that his end-is-near, panem et circenses credo might be shared by others.
Yet, if history is any authority, narcissism is but par for the course when it comes to making great art. Tillman’s esoteric shtick might be tired and onanistic, but he is still endlessly capable of creating beautiful music. Chloë and the Next 20th Century is Tillman staying true to his middling pseudo intellectual roots, but immersing them in a swanky downtown jazz club, served up with oysters and champagne. It’s a sumptuous, overstuffed musical feast worthy of admiration.