By James Calemine
Athens, Georgia, singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt existed as a musical force since the late 80s when R.E.M’s Michael Stipe produced his first two records. Madonna, Hootie & the Blowfish, The Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. have covered his songs. At The Cut, his 13th album, featured musicians from Thee Silver Mt. Zion, Godspeed You!, Black Emperor, Witches and Guy Picciotto of Fugazi. Some of the songs from At the Cut are 25 years old.
Chesnutt discussed how both At The Cut and his previous album North Star Deserter are connected through their songs:
“The two records, lyrically, have a lot in common. They’re both kind of heavy records. Not a lot of goofing around on these – a little bit of goofing around. This is kind of like my A game. These are my most important songs that I’m putting on these records…. These two records are lyrically the top of my craft.”
“Coward” opens the CD in a quiet manner as if the uneasy lyrical sentiment prepares the listener for what’s coming. Chesnutt pulls no punches. He cuts to the chase. “When the Bottom Fell Out” could be a country hit, but Chesnutt’s underplayed acoustic solo approach emits pure emotion—a great song.
“Chinaberry Tree” features the band in an echoing and haunting sonic atmosphere. Chesnutt’s gothic musical shadows transport the listener to terra incognita. “Chain”, another quiet number threads an emotive narrative embellished by a sorrowful piano into one sad, cathartic reality. “We Hovered With Short Wings” travels into jazz territory; this song could serve as a perfect soundtrack for an opium den.
“Philip Gaston” ranks as a mean rock and roll tune, but it’s Chesnutt’s lyrics that resonate. “Concord Country Jubilee” meets all the standards of excellence tinctured with a melancholy country vibe. Chesnutt spells out his race with Death in “Flirted With You All My Life”, and he sings “I even kissed you once or twice…”
“It Is What It Is” seems to provide hope for the outsider, the alienated, the displaced and this is where Chesnutt’s true talent shines through. He doesn’t write songs for the wrong reasons, but to only evoke pure emotion. Even “Granny” emits a sad realistic look at time. Each song conjures unforgettable images in sound like a vignette of musical film. At the Cut is not for the weak of spirit. Vic Chesnutt’s songs, in all their ugly truth, stab at the heart.
Chesnutt took his life on Christmas Day 2009.