Vic Chesnutt: “At the Cut”

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What exactly is so special about a chinaberry tree, that chopping it down should be such a dreadful, cataclysmic event? I have no idea, but hearing Vic Chesnutt narrate the saga of destruction in the garden is one of the most unsettling things I’ve heard this year, a spartan tale told in lean, precise language that just barely contains the violence circulating just beneath the surface. It’s quintessential Chesnutt on a number of levels, its carefully-controlled dynamics betraying the trained ear of a veteran musician, its sinister use of gothic archetypes suggesting a life-long Southerner who’s fully internalized the literary heritage of his home land.

If you think that’s heady praise for a musician most have never heard of, you’d be right. Though he was championed (and produced) by Michael Stipe in the 1980s, Chesnutt is an artist whose work has always been too bound to traditional songcraft to make him an indie rock star, and too concerned with atmosphere to fit in with iconoclasts like Tom Waits or Nick Cave. But if he never became a star, he’s always been a cult favorite and a steadily-working musician, quieting amassing a body of work that’s remarkably consistent, if dogged in its pursuit of a very narrow vision and aesthetic.

In a recording career that’s devoid of clunkers but also light on real standouts, new record At the Cut is as potent as anything Chesnutt has cut– not a departure from his familiar sound by any means, but arguably its most effective manifestation. And why wouldn’t it be? The album finds Chesnutt reuniting with producer Guy Picciotto and musicians from Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra, the same cast of collaborators who worked with Chesnutt on North Star Deserter, an album treasured by many fans as his best work. But Chesnutt is not an opportunist: He simply understands the importance of great group chemistry, which this ensemble has in spades, and it breathes life into this batch of Chesnutt originals, all of them evocative and generally unsettling.

The man really does have a literary flare, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect: His lyrics are lean and cut close to the bone, as much about what’s unsaid as what’s openly stated. But with a finely-honed economy of language, Chesnutt taps into the spooky, frequently violent tradition of Flannery O’Connor and the understated dread of William Faulkner– though his writing style isn’t straightforwardly narrative so much as it’s cinematic, each song feeling like a scene taken from a movie. His songwriting finesse is married to the deft work of his supporting musicians, who bring to the album a keen sense of dynamics and restraint.

The first two songs are At the Cut in miniature, laying out the parameters of its dynamic sprawl. “Coward” begins as a gently-strummed folk number, a lonely violin providing mournful accompaniment to Chesnutt’s acoustic guitar. More strings join in, and soon everything is quivering in nervous tension; when release comes, the song erupts into a monstrously grim crescendo, martial drums pounding as though driving a march through Mordor. The next song is “When the Bottom Fell Out,” the opening track’s polar opposite: It begins with just Chesnutt and his acoustic guitar, and it stays that way; the simple poetry in Chesnutt’s lyric, direct and evocative, is all that’s needed to make the song just as magnetic as the last.

The rest of the songs find themselves somewhere between these two poles. “We Hovered With Short Wings” is an ominously low, jazzy shuffle, all brushed snare and upright bass. “Concord Country Jubilee,” meanwhile, is a steadily swaying, sadsack country song. Exactly what happened at the jubilee, by the way, we’re not quite told, because it’s not important; something happened there, and in Chesnutt’s hands the emotional scars, the thick sense of loss and the pain of missed opportunities, is what really counts. Those are the sort of themes that are at the heart of this album, but it’s all wrapped up in eerie implications of violence; death is hinted at more than once, and the album’s central image is of a man being overcome by madness and taking an axe to a beloved tree. And then there’s “Coward,” in which the singer declares himself a scaredy-cat, but then warns that he’ll still scratch our eyes out if he’s backed into a corner.

The characters in these songs all seem a little off, a little mad, and always haunted by mortality: The album’s best song, “Flirted With You All My Life,” begins as nostalgia over a childhood crush but soon reveals itself to be a paean to life’s fragility and death’s inevitability. The lyrics, of course, are masterfully precise, and the musical backing is hypnotic. It’s the standout on an outstanding album; it won’t make Chesnutt a star, but by this point, who cares? If keeping a low profile allows him to keep making albums so rich in mystery and intrigue, so be it.

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