A paraplegic using a wheelchair since breaking his neck in a 1983 car accident, the 44-year-old, Athens, Ga.-based Chesnutt may be physically confined but not creatively. Through 15 albums — including the brand-new At the Cut — and constant touring, he has made a name for his meandering, gorgeous melodies and his fearless exploration of dark and mysterious, often-autobiographical subject matter.
His deepest thoughts are revealed through his arresting wordplay, which can be surreal, spookily Southern Gothic and starkly straightforward. And his voice exudes rustic authenticity as it jumps from falsetto sweetness to biting anger or world-weary confession.
It is music both peacefully down-home and very, very ominous, like The Band playing outdoors as a storm gathers.
Chesnutt has also steadily collaborated with bands like Widespread Panic, Cowboy Junkies, Elf Power and Lambchop, judiciously working with innovative arrangements and growing ever stronger as a rocker. At the Cut is his second collaboration with members of cutting-edge Indie bands Thee Silver Mt. Zion, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Fugazi. In 2007, they all worked together on North Star Deserter, which was recorded in Montreal by former Arcade Fire member Howard Bilerman, just as At the Cut was.
Chesnutt believes this is his best album to date.
It covers wide territory — the swelling orchestration on the imploring “Coward,” the intimately minimalist acoustic “When the Bottom Falls Out,” the slashing rocker “Philip Guston” and the powerful “Flirted With You All My Life,” maybe the most intensely felt song about death since Ralph Stanley’s “O Death.”
“It’s a very adult album in many ways,” Chesnutt says. “And it encompasses most of what I do in my singing and songwriting.
The musicianship and arrangements are incredible. I think it’s a very sophisticated album musically. It’s very raw in some places but also very architecturally sound. I’m very proud of it.”
Whatever else about Chesnutt, his lyrics keep you riveted to (and sometimes mystified by) what he has to say. On an At the Cut song like “Chinaberry Tree,” he’ writes, “Me with a Machete/Going at the chinaberry tree/All the Key Players watching me/ Through their simian groupthink.”
Then again, “Flirted With You …” is poetically direct: “When my Mom was cancer sick/She fought but then Succumbed to it/ but You made her beg For it/Lord Jesus, please I’m Ready’/o’Death … Clearly I’m not ready.”
“I’ve been accused of being a poet for a long time,” Chesnutt says. “Where I do use poetic devices a lot — metaphor, symbolism, simile, rhyme, of course — I don’t consider myself a poet. Poetic maybe. I’m not as schooled as real poets are. I’m a folksong writer; it’s pretty much Rock & Roll and folksong structures.
“I write songs all kinds of ways,” he explains. “Sometimes lyrics first, sometimes I have a melody and chord progression and plug in the lyrics, sometimes I write lyrics and melody at the same time — the way I prefer to do it. I hardly ever write in the presence of other people. I write all the songs on my own and the collaboration is on the arrangements.”
When Chesnutt first went to Montreal to record North Star Deserter, he went at the request of a friend and supporter, the filmmaker/photographer Jem Cohen. He didn’t really know the musicians, except for Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto.
“As soon as I went up there, I fell in love with them all,” he says. “I thought we had a musical rapport and a personal friendship. And then we made that album and went on tour and it developed a whole different level of intimacy.
“We knew, ‘Wow, we’ve got to make another record because we’re in love.’ It felt great. This band is an incredible brain trust — a Punk Rock supergroup. I’m flattered I can surround myself with such luminaries, such incredibly talented people.”
One of the great pleasures of Chesnutt’s idiosyncratic work is in knowing the literary and artistic references that inform it. The explosive lead track, “Coward,” begins with a quote from writer Frank Norris’s McTeague: “The courage of the coward, greater than all others.” It also quotes from Joseph Roth’s novel Radetzky March.
“I wrote this song with this band in mind right after I came home from recording North Star Deserter,” Chesnutt says. “It was inspired by several things. Jem Cohen wanted us all to read Radetzky March. Reading that, I also had the idea I wanted to write a song about a coward. We played it every night during the North Star Deserter tour so we knew it would be the centerpiece of this album. That song is a hangdog manifesto, straight from my lips.”
Chesnutt’s “Philip Guston” is a tribute to the forcefully expressionist American painter whose best-known work featured bluntly cartoonish figures and offered sometimes scathing takes on political issues like racism.
“Every word in that song is taken from his paintings — he has a lot of writing in his paintings, as well as the titles,” Chesnutt says. “I like his humor, his politics and his kind of boldness. He’s a rough and tumble dude with very manly paintings, and I like that.”
In such ways, a Vic Chesnutt concert is a lesson in American arts and history — with music.
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