“What’s ‘deeply funny’ mean anyhow?” Father John Misty asks on “Q4,” a single from Chloë and the Next 20th Century. The song is the album’s clearest, most cutting satire, but this question feels earnest, the stakes intimate to the singer — as a performer and person seeking connection in a modern wasteland.
Over five albums, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman has been a craftsman of story-songs delivered via absurdist personae, scaffolding ironic provocation with heartfelt croons and soaring folk-inspired instrumentation. On Chloë, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman returns with his first new material since 2018’s taciturn God’s Favorite Customer. Written and recorded in fall/winter 2020, the album sees Tillman continuing to collaborate with multi-instrumentatlist/producer Jonathan Wilson and engineer Dave Cerminara.
The eleven tracks often sound like mini film scores, featuring arrangements by Drew Erickson and plenty of strings, brass and woodwinds. Tillman still deals in clever, allusive vignettes, but the tone is ultimately gentler this time around, hazier and less incisive than God’s or 2017’s Trump-era Pure Comedy.
For a troubadour who’s referred to himself as a “sarcastic Michael Bublé,” the turn toward a more golden-hued melancholia is effective. The album opens with a curdled horn line and unabatedly tame big-band arrangement for the character study “Chloë,” and the listener thinks, Here comes the self-ironizing lounge lizard, sounding like the Beatles-doing-vaudeville. (Which, to be honest, we like very much.) But the next track, “Goodbye, Mr. Blue,” veers into a sunny-sad Harry Nilsson-like tune over Laurel Canyon guitar, the lyrics ruminating the end of a relationship coinciding with the death of a cat. Lines like “One down, eight to go, but it’s no less true/ Doesn’t the last time come too soon?” are genuinely funny — and genuinely sad.