J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Now Departing

Vic Chesnutt
North Star Deserter
(Constellation ; 2007)

I'm a big fan of literate songwriting. There is such a thing as going too far with it, but when the proper balance is struck, it's masterful. (Though sometimes they border on entering the 'too far' category, ask me sometime about the first time I heard the Decemberists.) So I've had a fun time exploring the work of Vic Chesnutt over the years. His music can be described as unique at the least - it's not something that's easy to explain to anyone. His eclecticism has created him an impassioned audience, but an inherently narrow one as well. Such is the nature of truly original art.

The title of Chesnutt's new album, North Star Deserter, reflects the darker tone of the album and perhaps could be taken as a comment on Chesnutt's career as a whole. Never one to follow the guiding light of musical success, Chesnutt long ago deserted the industry that will forever (correctly or not, from a commercial perspective) ignore his music.

The album has none of the shining, goofy moments that usually dot Chesnutt's eccentric character sketches and pastoral, cubist world visions. The closest he comes (and the one true stumbling point of the album) is "You are Never Alone." Nearing six minutes in length (5 of the 12 songs cross the 5:30 mark), its oddly juxtaposed lyrical structures, such as "it's okay / you can get an abortion / and keep on keepin' on" and the hopeful chorus of "you are never alone," come off as snarkily cynical rather than the usual sweetly off-kilter feel of his lyrics.

However, the standouts are truly examples of Chesnutt at his best. "Glossolalia" takes its traditional, sparse Chesnutt structure and takes off into huge chorused singing towards the end. Almost hymnal in nature, its sawing violin and dramatic ending make it a moving piece, especially coming on the second track of the album. "Everything I Say" and "Splendid" march off into 'rock' territory using buzzing, distorted electric guitars and dissonant feedback in the pounding choruses - Chesnutt truly mining the soft-loud-soft approach to a great effect. The latter is reminiscent of the soaring beauty of "Degenerate" from his 1996 album About to Choke, and there are naturally touches from a lot of Chesnutt's earlier work throughout the record. "Marathon" begins to wind the record down with a broken sounding vocal performance from Chesnutt - the metaphor of training for a marathon by running for miles 'with your Sunday shoes on' closing the song down. The song's static-laden undercurrent serves like a dissolving fluid, slowly eating away at what is left of his voice. The short "Rattle" ends the album with the statement "can't say I didn't rattle the load / but I'm keeping it on the road." A strangely simple, short and ultimately unsatisfying ending to what is a record of powerful, beautiful despair and melancholy.

While this might not be the record to point out for newcomers to Chesnutt's world, it certainly seems primed to grab a spot as one of his shining moments. Truly interesting explorations of dark feelings are hard to successfully put on record. They often come up sounding pitiful, self-absorbed or, at worst, mundane and boring. Harnessing his own lyrical gift, Chesnutt has created a record perfect for reflective, darker moments. And though its titular character may have lost his way, this record serves as a light all its own.

Rating: E(xceptional)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Decide for Yourself:

Vic Chesnutt - Glossolalia

Vic Chesnutt - Everything I Say

Vic Chesnutt - Rustic City Fathers

Buy Vic Chesnutt music from EMusic.

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