Two things recur with peculiar frequency around Father John Misty: films and dreams. You’ve heard his wife Emma is a filmmaker; or you might recall that wild story he made up about the time Lou Reed appeared to him in a dream; or you’ll remember his songs, the way the Warner Bros. logo looms over “Leaving LA.” Like David Lynch, Josh Tillman dreams in absurdity, a glamorously mundane world populated by seedy characters hidden beneath the surface. This is the Misty land, the dreamscape, and everyone who encounters his work crosses into it, consciously or not. He’s the folk singer for these times because the aura of unreality follows him around like a stench.
Anyway, here we have Chloë and the Next 20th Century, from the mind of an auteur who specializes in oneiric theory and mid-century film scores. His latest album is another collection of story-song vignettes arrayed in loose opposition to the pointless absurdity of modern society; or it’s an elaborate study in the life of a sad sack helplessly ensnared in doomed romances with a whole series of women, starting with Chloë, an unfeeling socialite whose previous boyfriend met a mysterious end in the first of, by my count, six tragic deaths in 51 minutes; or it was a dream all along.
What Chloë looks like, though, is a film. The old-timey opening credits roll for five minutes in the “Q4” video, but the action never begins. There are uncredited cameos: You can read “Funny Girl” like a blind item about Drew Barrymore from the perspective of a delusional fan, and in my mind the umlaut hovers over the image of another generationally famous Chloë, Sevigny. From the first sour trumpet, Misty is working overtime to entertain, tapping into a strain of golden age Hollywood jazz and swing that feels at first like a ludicrous posture for a folk-rock star. Few in our present era of obsessively nostalgic pop have dug all the way back to mid-century big band orchestration and jazz crooners like Johnny Mathis and Chet Baker. Misty looks here because it represents the period when movies were the most advanced and important popular multimedia form—easier than writing for the metaverse, in any case, and just as transportive.
Still, it’s a record, so you’ll have to watch in the dim theater of your own mind. The new album shares a number of themes with 2017’s Pure Comedy, Misty’s last great throwing-up-of-hands, but instead of manifestos and literalism, Chloë has the amnesiac effect of a film without phones or calendars. It feels designed to age well because it sounds a bit ageless, trimming back the earlier album’s instrumental interludes and replacing its curdled, Trump-scented atmosphere with melodies and stories of no era in particular. From this point, things get slippery: There’s no clear narrative, and the stories are riddled with innuendo and unanswered questions. In place of Pure Comedy’s logorrhea, Chloë suggests the framework of an ambitious novel: Perhaps the story begins with the wedding band of wooly closer “The Next 20th Century,” and ends, 11 songs earlier, as poor Chloë leaps off a balcony.