Countless artists can produce convincing creative facsimiles of heartbreak and its many guises — alienation, guilt, regret, self-flagellating misery — in song, but none meets the task with more bitter pleasure, honesty or crooked-smile charm than the inimitable Vic Chesnutt. Phrasing his lyrics idiosyncratically in a cracked, unsteady voice, strumming simple acoustic guitar patterns from his wheelchair, the real auteur of Athens, Georgia produces aggressively vulnerable records that turn predictable emotions inside out, using the wrenching pathos of his sublime (but intentionally rough-hewn), self-effacing poetry. For an illuminating introduction to a unique figure, Peter Sillen’s half-hour 1993 documentary film Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt is available on videocassette.
This colorful and witty storyteller doesn’t need to be reminded of his failings — he’s more than ready to sing about them, in a synergy of life and art that closes around his slight figure like a noose. In the bleak corrosion of Chesnutt’s tender idealism, a highly literate mind in a ruined body becomes a willful primitive with a ferocious and highly developed sense of irony. His skilled songwriting burns with reality’s pain while glowing with imagination.
Little was recorded in one 1988 day through the good offices of hometown pal Michael Stipe, who produced and hooked up the slow-cooking record deal. (“Production” in this case seems to have involved getting Vic in front of a microphone, although there is a trace of synthesizer on “Speed Racer.” “Stevie Smith,” which begins with a sound bite of the English poet, was cut separately with a small acoustic band.) In a reminiscence about the “Rabbit Box” he built as a child, Chesnutt catches a possum and a kitten, sets them free and breathes a sigh of relief, noting — with typical winsomeness — “We all three escaped safely.” In “Mr. Riely,” he passes along the bad news about “Joan, our ex-newspaper girl,” who has hung herself. “They found her by the frozen lake but it wasn’t frozen enough to skate but by the look on her face it must have been awful tempting.”
Stipe’s ambitious production — incorporating a handful of musicians to casually play cello, bass, drums and keyboards — elevates the sound of West of Rome all the way up to rudimentary. Chesnutt’s singing on “my second squirt” is concomitantly more assured and accomplished, which is about all that keeps the naked emotions surfacing in his songs from overwhelming him. He’s able to focus the jealousy and hurt in “Where Were You” enough to land a square, somber blow for romantic reliability, and the stark “Stupid Preoccupations” climbs down the abyss of self-loathing on sharp-tongued pitons tipped in poison, but the raw pain in “Withering” is beyond his control; the quiet dirge might as well be an anguished scream. Chesnutt settles for cryptic wordplay on “Lucinda Williams,” “Sponge” and “Latent/Blatant.” Elsewhere, Vic sends his arrows flying with pinpoint accuracy. He levels “Florida” as the “perfect place to retire from life,” slags off malicious gossips in “Soggy Tongues” and makes a delightful game out of his guarded optimism in “Steve Willoughby”: “Someday I’ll be a paragon/Like Louis Farrakhan/But today I simply am a mess.” No other mess ever recorded anything as lovely as the untitled two-guitar madrigal that ends this most challenging album.
Drunk is a great leap forward — in sound (some of it smartly electric), songwriting and vocal skill. The absence of Stipe is noted without prejudice. When not singing a tragic Stevie Smith poem or goofing around (as in “Super Tuesday”), Vic reviews his medical experiences (“Gluefoot,” “Supernatural”) and his trail of troubles (“When I Ran off and Left Her,” “Kick My Ass,” “Dodge”) with a mischievous streak of amusement about the pickles he gets himself into. The consistency of tone and the quiet quality of the music brings Chesnutt to a newly accessible stage.
“I wrote you an eloquent postcard once/About this most exquisite onion soup/But of course I never mailed it though/Cause it was your turn in the loop.” Is the Actor Happy? brings Vic into the realm of utterly presentable commercial recording, as producer John Keane and a low-key trio deliver the eccentricity of his creations and voice with loving empathy. Casting his songwriting eye as far as “Thailand” and as near as “Thumbtack,” he balances humor and determination in the “Gravity of the Situation,” taking serious things in stride, mocking himself without assigning blame. His grasp of language and construction is better than ever, to the point where the songs here manage to juggle streamlined musical power and crackpot invention without falling over. “Free of Hope,” a rocked-up haunted blues as brilliant and chilling as anything he’s ever written, paints a scorching portrait of despair (“Thank you God of Nothing-I’m free at last”) by deftly sidestepping self-pity, a luxury he has long since abandoned. Chesnutt alone knows the price he’s paid for his art, and he’s no martyr.
Brute is a bad but innocuous idea, a one-off studio project in which Chesnutt is backed by five-sixths of local rockers Widespread Panic. The tastefully efficient country-soul-rock accompaniment neither improves nor damages a genial (except for “Miserable” and the spiteful “PC,” and maybe the breakup epilogue of “Let’s Get Down to Business” and, oh yeah, the turned-down disappointment of “Blight”) collection of excellent new Chesnutt originals. The band may be gaining some much-needed hip cred here, but Chesnutt takes the ride with his usual unflappable calm. Given that his vocal personality is strong enough to obscure whatever else is going on, and too quirky for the sonic finish to make any commercial difference, Nine High a Pallet is, ultimately, another Vic Chesnutt record, one that proves what his music can withstand more than where it should be headed. When he sings “Good Morning Mr. Hard-on,” a crisp funk beat and pumping piano don’t stand a chance of being taken seriously. And it hardly matters what goes on behind a vivid image like “Daddy is asleep, just home from work/In his comfy chair in his yellowed undershirt/Sister is sad she just got the curse/I am fairly happy ’cause my go-kart kind of works.” The surging rock power in “Protein Drink” and “Sewing Machine” come as a surprise, but the band plays it like Crazy Horse, leaving Chesnutt to be a southern-man Neil Young at the center of the storm. As Chesnutt sings, “I will float again/When they’re done dredging.”