If you were to put together a list of a hundred of the most random, bizarre ideas on which to base a song, you would probably be hard-pressed to come up with anything more peculiar than the theme of "Sultan, So Mighty," a track from Vic Chesnutt's new album Silver Lake. In a haunting falsetto sung over a bass-heavy, brush-snare background, Chesnutt examines a eunuch's relationship with the harem he must guard, as well as his enslavement to his master and castigator, the sultan.
"I saw on TV a while back a thing like 'Today in History,' about the day the last castrati died," Chesnutt says in a gentle Southern drawl. "These young boys who could sing really good, they'd cut their balls off so their voices would never change, and then when they were older, they could still sing like when they were a boy. And they played this clip from this guy singing, and it was so great and beautiful and gorgeous, and I got to thinking about the powers that be mutilating this guy. Then I got to thinking about a subversive relationship that a eunuch would have with the harem, and to me it seemed like an interesting story to explore -- this kind of intimacy they would have that the power structure would not approve of, and this intimate relationship that would make the sultan jealous and angry."
Just about anything can serve as fodder for Chesnutt's fertile imagination. A native of Zebulon, Georgia, he's an oddball with a taste for the subversive and a knack for literary narrative. The nine solo records Chesnutt has released over the past thirteen years are shaped by darkly brooding lyrical meditations, countrified stream-of-consciousness wordplay and spare storytelling.
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"It's kind of selfish, sitting around in a room by yourself and writing," Chesnutt says. "It's not about others, for me at least. It's a very lonely kind of deal. But it's fulfilling, or it can be. That's why, when you see it take on a life of its own, when it has its own relationship with others outside of what you intended, it's a pretty cool thing."
Selfish or not, Chesnutt speaks from a peculiar place that is both highly personal and deliberately obscure. Much ink has been spilled over the fact that he lost the use of his legs and partial use of his arms in a car accident at age eighteen, but it's a point that bears repeating. The incident figures hugely in Chesnutt's life -- and thus in his art. Following the crash, Chesnutt became a prolific reader and eventually coaxed his reluctant arms and hands to learn to play the guitar. As much as his apparent physical vulnerability -- he looks like a 97-pound string bean when folded up in his wheelchair -- the barren honesty of his writing has won him legions of intensely loyal fans. Mail from admirers often includes odd pleadings: "Please don't die" read a recent letter.
"It's a little bizarre," Chesnutt says, "but it's really good for me. It's like I have this big support group, and it does comfort me somewhat in the bleak hours, knowing that I have touched people. It's a boost to know that my selfish works have transcended my own selfish mind, that I've given something to other people."
It's unlikely that Chesnutt's music would have touched anyone outside his inner circle if it weren't for Michael Stipe. Stipe befriended Chesnutt when he was playing around the vibrant club scene in Athens, Georgia, in the late '80s; the R.E.M. leader managed to shepherd him into the studio to record 1990's Little; West of Rome followed in 1991. That pair of sparsely recorded, desolate, rough gems laid out Chesnutt's peculiarities in phrasing, storytelling and song structures. Between 1993 and 1995, he recorded another pair of albums, Drunk and Is the Actor Happy, on which he explored more hook-driven and upbeat tunes -- not that anyone noticed.Chesnutt toiled in relative obscurity until the 1996 release of Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, a followup to the hugely successful Sweet Relief compilation project that benefited songwriter Victoria Williams. Crafted in a similar spirit, Sweet Relief II enlisted heavyweight admirers of Chesnutt's, including Soul Asylum, R.E.M., the Indigo Girls and Madonna, all of whom contributed covers of his songs, with decidedly mixed results; a portion of the proceeds were allocated to offset Chesnutt's formidable medical bills. Suddenly his name was bubbling to the surface in a much wider variety of places -- a pyramid scheme of exposure.
More exposure came Chesnutt's way with the birth of Brute, a side project he formed with the members of Athens-based Widespread Panic. The project was ad hoc at first; a loose jam session in 1995 resulted in the recording of Nine High a Pallet, which was followed in 2002 by Co-Balt. The combo sounds like a tighter, less wandering Widespread and a brighter, more concise Chesnutt; it's lively music shorn of both the noodling and the gloom. Playing to a whole new set of dreadlock-covered eardrums has been worthwhile for Chesnutt, but he has some misgivings about Panic's fans -- especially when they yell out the names of Brute songs at his solo shows.
"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 Lake are 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."
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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."
But that's part of the fun: Everyone gets to see in his or her own way. The most important thing Chesnutt can do is write songs that unlock something inside the listener's mind. He'll communicate with you, but you've got to work for it.
"To me, ambiguity is a tool," he says. "It's like a Rorschach test sometimes, my songs. I'm working with the listener to elicit some kind of response from them. I work with their imagination to get something to pop."