Roasting Chesnutt

The Salesman and Bernadette, the sixth album Vic Chesnutt has put his name on, is as sexy as folk-pop gets. Far from the scratchy, aching, desperate tunes that characterized Chesnutt's first records in the late '80s--back when he was little more than an Athens, Georgia, cult hero celebrated and produced by Michael Stipe--Bernadette adds a sonic pleasure to Chesnutt's trademark wordsmithing. There are traces of the gloomy, minor-key ballads of his previous work, but many of Bernadette's songs are underscored with a wiggling sashay of hooks, horns, and rhythm, over which Chesnutt deftly softens his gruff, creaky voice.

Credit the sexiness partly to Lambchop, the umpteen-member Nashville post-country troupe that plays backup on the record, helping to arrange the songs as understated but slinky soul creations. Using soaring horn fills and backup singers chiming in la-la-las, the sound they create seems almost the antithesis of Chesnutt's own self-deprecating obsessions. But Chesnutt's lyrics wink and nudge as well: Throughout the record, he name-checks sex-themed art-film classics such as Harold and Maude and Therese & Isabelle, and employs off-color puns ("With the benefit of hindsight / I could see your ass wasn't right"). The two main characters of the album's title speak of boffing or flip through dirty books, "looking for a bit of titillation."

It's an odd but pleasant change in focus, especially given Chesnutt's recent history. By 1996, he was beginning to rise out of the cult-hero world that had embraced his first three albums of caustic, witty folk-pop: Capitol Records had signed him, and the same year saw the release of Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation, on which his songs were interpreted--often wildly--by the likes of Madonna, Garbage, Hootie & the Blowfish, and R.E.M. But in March of 1997, as he was touring behind the spare, mordant About to Choke, his first and last record for Capitol, Chesnutt disappeared unannounced and canceled the remainder of his tour dates with Lambchop, claiming exhaustion. Recording Bernadette with the band, he says, was his apology for the abrupt exit. "I was going to tour with them on the West Coast," he says, sitting in his wheelchair in a dressing room at the San Francisco-based Noe Valley Ministry, shortly before the second of his two recent shows there. "So I just wanted to say sorry to them."

Mostly paralyzed in a drunken car wreck when he was 18, the 33-year-old Chesnutt plays guitar with a pick attached to a black leather band wrapped around his right palm; when he speaks, his left hand is either idly adjusting the strap or digging into a pocket of his corduroy pants. His speech veers from literary references to enthusiastic teen-speak, filled with gonnas, y'knows, and kick-asses. Speaking about the fuller, Stax/Volt-inspired sound Lambchop brought to many of Bernadette's arrangements, he says, "I'm really into it, but Lambchop, they're really super into that crap right now. I really wanted to exploit that part of them, so I wrote a couple of songs with that in mind: 'Prick,' 'Replenished,' 'Until the Led.' A lot of the songs I didn't really write with them in mind, but we arranged them together so they could pretty much wail on it."

Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner, for his part, gives most of the credit to Chesnutt alone. "Vic did pretty much all the writing and planning," he says from his home in Nashville. "I just offered nuts-and-bolts advice, tailored to what Lambchop could do."

The back cover of The Salesman and Bernadette promises a "lovely story...of loss and longing and sloppy satori," though we never do find out what the salesman is actually hawking; be it Fuller brushes, encyclopedias, swampland, or pantyhose like Willy Loman, Chesnutt details only what happens between transactions. As Chesnutt sings his story, stretching the words over the rhythm--through it, around it--we find the salesman curled under the sheets of a hotel room, catching a parade, drinking Scotch, and always pursuing the elusive Bernadette, who takes vocal form as Emmylou Harris on the duet "Woodrow Wilson."

Bernadette's themes are the stuff of paperback fiction, but in pop music those conceits get saddled with the term "concept album" and all the implications of Pink Floydian pretense that come with it. "I had pages and pages of explanation that I was gonna give on the record," Chesnutt says. "But at the last minute, I tried to strip all that away--'concept record,' that sort of thing, it was kind of giving me the willies. I just wanted to keep the mystery in there. I felt a little silly about trying to make a Tommy."

But the world Chesnutt has created is smaller and less audacious than any Who-like construction. Chesnutt focuses on the tiny details that emerge from place to place, from song to song: the "Eisenhower ashtray" that Bernadette's brother owns, a cat scratching the carpet and stepping in its water bowl, a man "dripping with Vitalis" who tells the salesman he looks like Joe Namath. Though lyrics are framed as tiny chapters on the lyric sheet, what Chesnutt has created isn't so much a novel--and certainly not the reviled concept album--as much as it is a series of set pieces to spin his words around. The effect is similar to the "grotesques" that Sherwood Anderson crafted in his 1919 book Winesburg, Ohio, a comparison Chesnutt warms to. "Anderson's a good dude like that. That kind of stuff is a great influence on me, the early-20th-century vignette. Like [Spoon River Anthology author Edgar Lee] Masters, who was like that--that was what I was shooting for."

There's no doubting that Chesnutt has a thing for words, even by the literate standards of most singer-songwriters. After playing an in-store show at San Francisco's Amoeba Music, he picked up albums by Iris DeMent, the Minutemen, Danielle Cowle, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen--wordy folks all. "I'm obsessed with language," Chesnutt says. "The hocus-pocus of language. The cause and response they make, how certain words have powers, and certain images--when you describe an image--what kind of power it has. When I was a kid listening to rock records, Leonard Cohen, I'd be going, 'Goddamn, that's a great line.' I wanted music to kick my ass in a way. I didn't want to just shake my booty. I wanted to shake my soul."

With the exception of Dylan, the artists whose records Chesnutt picked up that day are still mainly cult artists; Chesnutt was never going to "kick major-label butt," as he half-jokingly said he'd do on one early song. "I probably sold the least amount of records in the history of Capitol," he says. That puts him in a grand tradition of half-famous folkies, a status Chesnutt is fine with. "Other songwriters were the people that liked my songs the most," he says. "So I was conditioned that these were the people who liked my songs. I was the songwriter's songwriter. I don't want to blow my own horn, but my influence on other songwriters is great. I know because they tell me it is."

His list of fans ranges from the artists on Sweet Relief II to, somewhat surprisingly, Van Dyke Parks, the creator of the 1969 masterpiece Song Cycle, which, along with the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, helped create the blueprint for modern symphonic pop. The pairing would have seemed odd pre-Bernadette, but Chesnutt croons, "I'm giving you a Van Dyke listening" on the Brill Building pop of "Mysterious Tunnel," and speaks enthusiastically about a collaboration the two are planning. "Song Cycle is a bible, a rock bible," he says. "Lyrically speaking, musically speaking--it's fantastic. He's a god to me."

For the second time in his career, Chesnutt is crawling out of the tiny shell that's the singer-songwriter ghetto--except this time he's doing it on his own terms. "I just want to write better songs," he says. "When I write better songs, more people will buy my records. They won't be able to deny it.


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