Review: Jack White and Father John Misty serve up two kinds of rock revivalism on their new albums
People don't talk about rock music very much these days, probably because there isn't a whole lot to say. Its decades as a dominant cultural force — the plugged-in lingua franca of sex and rebellion and whatever the kids are up to — ceded to other genres long ago, even as young bands keep seeking inspiration from the same few chords. (Tellingly, four of the five nominated acts for Best Rock Album at this year's Grammys were over 50; one of them, Chris Cornell, has been deceased since 2017.)
That leaves stars like Jack White and Father John Misty in a strange place artistically, both keepers of a different kind of flame. Misty, otherwise known as Josh Tillman, made his name by leaning into every earnest double-denim cliché of the 1970s singer-songwriter and then tweaking it mercilessly — Jim Croce or Kris Kristofferson as millennial in-joke performance art. But even the invisible air quotes that often seem to surround Tillman's output can't conceal his genuine affection for the gold-dust reveries he recreates so faithfully. Now five albums in with Chloë and the Next 20th Century, the student has become a maestro: a bearded dandy skipping blithely from jaunty jazz-hands ragtime (the high-kicking opener "Chloë") to the kind of winsome open-road rambler Harry Nilsson might have written at a rest stop ("Goodbye Mr. Blue").
"Kiss Me (I Loved You)" is an orchestral swoon, its falsetto heartbreak hung on the lie of "loved" as a past-tense verb; the mournful saxophone shuffle "Buddy's Rendezvous" slides into the groovy little bossa nova of "Olvidado (Otro Momento)." The sprawling closer "The Next 20th Century" trails its wailing guitar feedback with a metallic shiver of castanets. Nearly every track comes draped in a lush overlay of strings and piano, though the lyrics — littered with knowing references to Val Kilmer's career and couplets that rhyme "balcony" with "Valkyries" — are pure picaresque, so full of eccentric characters and casual Hollywood lore they feel less like songs than Paul Thomas Anderson movies compressed to six minutes or less.
Detroit native Jack White doesn't have much use for finer plot points on Fear of the Dawn, a record that stomps in on a wave of pinwheeling riffs and raw energy, and pretty much stays there for the next 40 minutes. The artist who helped revive and redefine a deliberately unpolished style of indie rock in the early 2000s with the White Stripes has famously become a one-man industry, churning out fresh-pressed vinyl and obscure reissues from his new home base in Tennessee. He may be a mogul in his mid-40s now, but you can't take the guy out of the garage. Fear, his fourth solo studio album, feels like primal-scream therapy with occasional melodies: a woolly wall of sound from the chugging blown-out opener "Taking Me Back" to the spiraling title track.
The squiggly "Hi De Ho" gets a playful assist from A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip; "Into the Twilight" dabbles in slap-bass funk. White smears his outraged howl over heavy mettle and cowbell on "What's the Trick," then pivots to Stripes-y simplicity on "That Was Then (This Is Now)" and "Morning, Noon, and Night." Like Tillman, he's been working with this toolbox long enough to know exactly what he likes (though he tends to use a lot more hammers). Why mess with an uncertain future when you've already mastered the past?
GRADES: Chlöe and the Next 20th Century: B+ ; Fear of the Dawn: B
Chloë and the Next 20th Century and Fear of the Dawn are out today.