After a long and storied musical career, Vic Chesnutt appears to have found a backing band that suits him perfectly. Not to impugn the stellar work of the backing musicians on Is the Actor Happy? or West Of Rome, but 2007’s North Star Deserter and Chesnutt’s latest, At The Cut, hugely benefit from the powerful accompaniment provided by esteemed musicians such as Guy Picciotto (Fugazi), and various members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion. Whereas Chesnutt’s earlier work featured fairly respectful and modest musicianship, which rightly implied that Chesnutt’s uncommonly elegant lyricism is the true star of the show, At The Cut demonstrates that Chesnutt’s music truly thrives amongst musicians with a more intuitive grasp of push and pull. This is the most fully charged and emotionally potent music on Chesnutt’s career, and if you’ve been following Chesnutt’s career, you’ll know that’s no faint praise.
Though At The Cut distinguishes itself from the majority of Chesnutt’s other work by frequently resorting to striking bouts of controlled yet sweeping musical violence, it’s a record equally marked by its willingness to dwell on near silence. Opener “Coward’ is a stunning example of these conflicting tendencies working together to create an intensely expressive confessional. Chesnutt begins with the ever so slightly modified Frank Norris quote, “The courage of the coward is greater than all others,” over a carefully spare acoustic guitar. Soon Chesnutt is meekly intoning, “I am a coward.” As the music begins to dramatically build, Chesnutt warns “Submissive dogs can lash out in fear and be very very dangerous,” before confidently declaring once again “I am a coward.” At this point the band- violins, drums and guitars- are in full symphonic effect, backing Chesnutt’s momentary fear-induced aggression in all of its confused rage. It’s a beautiful and conflicted moment of qualified triumph, and the record is just getting underway.
Rather than maintain the momentum established by “Coward,” Chesnutt brings At The Cut to a temporary halt with the sadly sweet, “When The Bottom Fell Out.” The record soon regains its air of cataclysmic confusion and mounting anger with “Chinaberry Tree,” which finds Chesnutt assuming the role of an untrustworthy narrator hacking away at the titular tree in front of a crowd of onlookers. Chesnutt sings of his “ever-loosening grip,” which presumably refers to his chopping instrument of choice and his tenuous grip on reality, which prevents him from ever really explaining the motivation behind such a bizarre act. It’s a brilliantly opaque song, displaying Chesnutt’s much-lauded storytelling prowess that combines equal parts peculiar restraint and pitch black humor.
Yet for Chesnutt at his best, one need look no further than “Flirted With You All My Life” to find nearly the entirety of his virtues concurrently on display. For a song that is so unabashedly about death, it is as perversely uplifting as it is profoundly devastating. Chesnutt’s lyrics cleverly alternate between coy curiosity (“Flirted with you all my life, even kissed you once or twice, to this day I swear it was nice, but clearly I’m not ready”) to gut-wrenchingly personal and sad (“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’”). The breezy shuffle that accompanies all of this pathos is unusually pleasant given the subject matter, but it works, tempering the gloomy content with an almost casual defiance.
That’s always been Chesnutt’s strongest feature: his preternatural ability to shift subjects almost universally accepted as cheerless into something more multi-dimensional. At The Cut argues that Chesnutt is only growing sharper in this regard, and his current backing band can match his lyrical complexity with carefully calibrated instrumentation choices. It’s been a long time coming, but Chesnutt might finally get the due a man of his talents deserves.