At The Cut
Chesnutt has worked with many collaborators over his twenty-year music career. His first album for Constellation, North Star Deserter (2007), featured the members of Silver Mt. Zion (among other label-affiliated musicians in Constellation’s home town of Montreal) and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. USA music magazine Paste ranked this album the best of his numerous collaborative records over the last dozen years. North Star Deserter was highly acclaimed and signaled a true return to form for Vic Chesnutt, but remained criminally overlooked in the USA. A core group of players emerged from this first recording to accompany Vic on two European tours in support of the album: Thierry Amar (bass), Efrim Menuck (guitar), Jessica Moss (violin) and David Payant (drums) all of Silver Mt. Zion, along with Guy Picciotto (guitar). Together with studio members (and occasional live players) Nadia Moss (piano, organ) and Chad Jones (guitar), this same troupe has reunited for Vic’s second Constellation album, once again recorded by Howard Bilerman at Hotel2Tango in Montreal.
At The Cut picks up where North Star Deserter left off, with the explosive opening tune “Coward” displaying all the epic soaring thrust this band is capable of. Vic debuted this song as part of Jem Cohen’s ‘film hallucination’ Empires Of Tin when it was performed live with the touring band at the 2007 Vienna Film Festival. Re-recorded for At The Cut, it certainly does cut to the chase, as Vic bellows “I am a coward” to trigger a massive unison instrumental line, reinforcing the tune’s double-edged opening lyric (and Frank Norris quote) “The courage of the coward – greater than all others”. From this bracing beginning, however, At The Cut quickly changes temperature and temperament, settling into what is arguably the most intimate, pensive and heartbreaking work of Vic Chesnutt’s career. Cowardice, courage, mortality, tenacity, defiance, mourning and memory are its themes. Throughout the album, and even on the two tracks that blister and blast with this rocking band – “Coward” and “Philip Guston” – there is a lyrical intimacy and directness, a searingly raw honesty to Vic’s voice and words, that finds no parallel in his body of work to date.
Side One of At The Cut traces a gorgeous arc. Following the clarion call of “Coward” is “When The Bottom Fell Out”, a classic solo Vic tune, recorded live off the floor, the vocal tethered to the simplest of acoustic guitar lines, the fatalistic lyric delivered steadfast and strong. “Chinaberry Tree” finds the band in a lovely, loose, rollicking swing as Vic hacks away, “throwing myself at the cut / with a force heretofore unknown to me” and belting out the song’s eponymous chorus amidst intertwining lead guitars and violin. “Chain” features one of the album’s strongest arrangements, with piano and guitar figures deployed beautifully to support a fine bit of minimalist, oblique metaphysics from Mr. Chesnutt. “We Hovered With Short Wings” closes the side in a slow burn, with the rhythm section laying down a languorous groove over which Vic, in sweet falsetto, sings one of the finest poems he’s ever penned.
Side Two does not relent. “Philip Guston” hits the reset button – the record’s most angular and snarling tune (and a close contender for album opener) with some great guitar and drum work seesawing against the staccato verse structure. Memory and mortality are the commanding themes for the remainder of the album: “Concord Country Jubilee” is a sweet pastoral childhood reminiscence, “Flirted With You All My Life” a quite literal ode to the dance with death, delivered with a perfect and unaffected mix of exuberance, defiance and insouciance. “It Is What It Is”, as the penultimate tune and the album’s one cascading river of words, has Chesnutt piling one nugget upon another in a wonderful stream of vainglorious (auto)biography, a first-person testimonial that begins (while also quoting W.H. Auden) “I am a monster like Quasimodo / or Caliban, the natural man / ‘giving wild ripostes to my reflection’” and concludes with a masterfully poetic declaration of secularism “against the looming blackness”. The album closes with “Granny”, which should pretty much tear your heart out; a devastatingly tender and deeply affectionate portrait, without the slightest hint of anything mawkish, clichéd or over-sentimental.
For an album so overtly shaped by ruminations on mortality, by a man from Athens, GA who certainly knows of what he sings (having survived a car accident at age 18 that confined him to a wheelchair and has subjected him to an endless cavalcade of complications, procedures, emergencies and towering medical bills ever since), it is both refreshing and unbelievably heartwarming to hear how Vic Chesnutt sidesteps any of the obvious Southern Gothic tropes, lyrically and musically. No vaulted arches, gaping abysses or burning fields here – no ‘voicing’ of the preacher or the devil, no putting on airs. Vic manages to sing so authentically and wholeheartedly from and about his sense of place (the South, the wheelchair, 21st century America) because he refuses to sentimentalise any of it and rails against his personal fate without bitterness, without apology, with a sardonic and sometimes angry poetics of the passionately humanist and secular variety: wholly framed by the back porch, championing a humble wisdom, a sincere ethics (without moralising) and a natural literateness, certainly permitting a wisecrack or three, but never allowing for anything hackneyed or cornball or fake. We think At The Cut is a bona fide classic by a man better positioned than most to sing it strong and true.