By Drew Ailes
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By Tom Murphy
"When they come and all they want to hear is some song I've done with Panic and they're talking the whole time during songs they don't know, it's pissing me off," Chesnutt says. "They forget that I'm not playing all that loud, and I'm not in an arena, and they're just so drunk they've lost all decorum. I love those guys in Panic so much. They're the sweetest guys and a great band, but their fans are obnoxious as hell. God, they're so fucking obnoxious. I played in Philadelphia the other night, and there was about twenty of them there, and they were just so drunk."
There's always been a tension between Chesnutt's desire to communicate with as many music fans as possible and his desire to do things his way. He signed with Capitol following the surge in publicity that accompanied Sweet Relief II; the resulting record, About to Choke, was both artistically challenging and accessible. Chesnutt included a richer, more fleshed-out production on some songs while retaining a breathy, personal feel on others. He went for one more outing with a major label: The Salesman and Bernadette, performed with alt-Southern weirdo band Lambchop, was released on Polygram in 1998. But Chesnutt retreated to the indies, where he's remained: Merriment, from 2000, which paired him with Kelly and Nikki Keneipp and Jack Logan, came out on Backburner; 2001's Left to His Own Devices is a wonderfully askew collection of four-track songs that Chesnutt recorded at home and unleashed through SpinArt; and Silver Lake, released this month, was released by the teeny New West Records.
Silver Lake marks an aesthetic departure, with shimmering finery and smooth songs finessed by producer/engineer Mark Howard. The smooth texture of the recording is made more impressive by the fact that Chesnutt didn't even know most of the people he was playing with prior to arriving at Howard's studio in Los Angeles.
"I'd never met them, except for the piano player [Patrick Warren]," he says of the recording band, which was rounded out by Doug Pettibone on guitar, Daryl Johnson on bass and drummer Mike Stinson. "I hit it off with these folks immediately. Maybe it's not that way with other people, but...I guess that's the producer's job, to get people who can work together. [Howard] was great; I really liked him a lot. He had been Daniel Lanois's engineer for fifteen years, so he had been an engineer first, and he's starting to produce his own stuff now. He laid the cables down, put the mikes up, pushed the 'record' button, tweaked the knobs. He did everything, and very quickly, too. I'm always the weak link. I always have to re-sing my parts."
Silver Lake is a collection of what Chesnutt calls "slogans, short stories or poems" that are disparate in mood and theme but all highly evolved, layered and cleanly produced, at least by his standards. Gone are the echoing flaps of dropped pages or the thumps of guitar necks hitting the microphone -- imperfections that were scattered among his previous records. That's not to say that the old Vic has been replaced by some slick creature of Hollywood. He still knows how to tell a story and how to lay his soul bare.
Flecked with wavering notes played on a Wurlitzer piano, the opener, "I'm Through," relays the sense of relief and resignation that comes with letting down that last wall: "Forget everything I ever told you/I'm sure I lied way more than twice...I'm tired of bleeding/For no good reason/Is that so hard to see?" But the goofy songs on Silver Lakeare some of the best. Though it contains no reference to a flute, "Band Camp" is a funny and painful confessional song about a teenage infatuation between a high school freshman and senior: "Once you soaked a tampon in some serious vodka/Wore it to school/Second- period science lab/You fell right off your stool."
But even Silver's most dire songs -- such as "Styrofoam," in which Chesnutt compares himself to a "cheap, spent shell," a "biohazard" and a "lousy poet" -- don't match the despair of some of his earlier work. It's possible to trace a path of optimism that began with Is the Actor Happy, an overall arc of lightening up. Is he becoming a more cheerful man?
"Well, I have tried Prozac," Chesnutt says, laughing. "That's an interesting slant on it. I don't know, maybe I am [happier]. I like to explore all kinds of emotions. I don't want to just sing depressing songs all the time, and I still have a problem with depression. Still, it's fun to explore all kinds of songs. I have that happy, goofy aspect; I always have."
For Chesnutt, finding ways to communicate his complicated ideas by using odd and ridiculous metaphors is a perverse joy.
"Language is inherently a kind of sloppy form of communication in that it's very subjective," Chesnutt says. "If you say 'blue,' there's a billion types of blue. I was just doing another interview today, and [the interviewer] was talking about the way some people had interpreted songs like 'Styrofoam,' and how some people had interpreted that this was a song about a cooler. And this guy didn't see that it was metaphor."