Vic Chesnutt

At the Cut

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Constellation

If as a culture we prefer to keep our mortality at a safe and comfortable distance, such an approach has never found its way into Vic Chesnutt’s music. The musician whom Michael Stipe rushed into a recording studio for fear of Chesnutt’s songs never getting recorded has now been plugging along for more than 20 years, reminding us of our ultimate demise with a mixture of humor, pathos, derision and sympathy. Amid all the bizarre weirdos, tragic figures and other conflicted characters that populate Chesnutt’s songs, death has been among the most frequent themes in his music. In most cases these meditations on the Great Beyond have been accompanied by the musician’s darkly cynical humor, whether it’s in the starkly arranged suicide lament of “Florida,” the ancestral invocations of “Aunt Avis” or the poor, “coldest cadaver in the state,” who meets an icy and altogether unpleasant end in “Mr. Reilly.”

Chesnutt again stares down death throughout much of At the Cut. The suicide fantasy of “When The Bottom Fell Out” can be interpreted either literally or metaphorically; minimally arranged with just Chesnutt on acoustic guitar, its narrator describing himself hurling toward the earth, sardonically quoting Woody Guthrie on the way down (“So long/ It’s been good to know ye“), eventually crashing into “that verdant grass.” “Flirted With You All My Life,” an alternately strong-willed and cowering address to death, is impossible not to view as autobiographical, with references to both Chesnutt’s own suicide attempts (“I flirted with you all my life/ Even kissed you once or twice“) and a friend’s suicide (perhaps the poet John Seawright or Steve Buczko, who “hit those nails on the head” in “Florida”). The song is ultimately ambivalent; though the singer realizes that he’s not ready to die, the last image we’re left with is of Chesnutt’s “cancer sick” mother reduced to begging for death to come.

A sense of remembrance ties several songs together. Though these tracks stop short of consolation, they nevertheless imply that there’s some comfort to be found in such fleeting memories. Chesnutt offers a somewhat uncharacteristically straightforward vocal approach on the delicate “Concord Country Jubilee” as he recalls a series of childhood events and images – scraped knees, homemade ice cream and an adolescent kiss – that take place within the innocent atmosphere of a county fair. Chesnutt’s grandmother, a frequent figure in the musician’s songs, makes an appearance in the sparsely arranged and truly heartbreaking “Granny,” in which Chesnutt recalls snippets of phrases and mundane everyday details from his beloved grandmother. The song speaks to the sense of loss that is felt throughout the album as well as the tight bond that unites family members across different generations. When Chesnutt quotes his grandmother – “You are the light of my life/ And the beat of my heart-” it’s both tender and troubling, the type of simple phrase from a loved one that we all carry in our minds and remember with both affection and a sometimes unshakable sadness.

Musically, At the Cut recalls both Chesnutt’s folk leanings as well as the jagged edges that dominated North Start Deserter. In some ways this isn’t surprising, as the singer sometimes carries songs with him for years before they land on an album (some fans may recognize “Coward,” “When The Bottom Fell Out” and “Granny” from various live recordings). Regardless, the album is better balanced than Deserter, which sometimes sounded overly abrasive just for the hell of it. Deserter collaborators, including members of A Silver Mt. Zion, Guy Picciotto from Fugazi and producer Howard Bilerman again give the album muscle: after a tentative beginning, “Coward” explodes with an imposing wall of noise and severe strings that cut and stab, “Philip Guston (with Clark Coolidge)” finds Chesnutt snarling his vocals over a flood of guitars and the hacking-the-shit-out-of-a-tree tale of “Chinaberry Tree” is suitably aggressive and tense. A flood of images cascades over squalls of guitars and piercing strings in “It Is What It Is,” which in many ways sounds like an updated version of the atheist declarations of “Speed Racer:” “I’m not a pagan/ I don’t worship anything/ Not gods that don’t exist/ Nor the sun which is oblivious/… And I don’t need stone altars/ To help me hedge my bet/ Against the looming blackness.”

This assertion is perhaps At the Cut’s most singular vow of defiance in an album littered with conflicting emotions. Mortality and memories flood its songs in an unnerving mix of hope and despair, determination and defeat, and Chesnutt’s self-described tendency towards being “painfully nostalgic” takes on a more urgent tone throughout the album. Though a few songs never quite emerge from these dark shadows – the falsetto singing of “We Hovered With Short Wings” deadens one of Chesnutt’s more poetic efforts, while “Chain” is the record’s least memorable track – this release contains an affecting and moving set of songs that mostly plays to Chesnutt’s strengths as a musician and lyricist. While its inclusions offer numerous parallels to Chesnutt’s back catalog, rarely have his songs sounded so unflinching. When it comes to songs about dying and the past Vic Chesnutt has never bullshitted. Judging from this album, it’s clear he doesn’t plan to start that anytime soon.

by Eric Dennis

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