Vic Chesnutt’s inaugural release for New West, 2002’s Silver Lake, attempted to dip his idiosyncratic compositions into a rich frothy mixture of big-time studio production and crack session performances. But to extend the metaphor, the resulting work was too uniform in its taste, even dull in moments, something that no Chesnutt album had ever been before. The demos for Silver Lake, however, were delicious in their own sparsely seasoned way. So how to reconcile the two? How to push the production into new territory without buffing away the differences and eccentricities? The answer arrives in the form of Ghetto Bells, which improves on its predecessor in nearly every way.
The eleven songs on Ghetto Bells are all over the map. Chosen from about 50 demos Chesnutt originally sent producer John Chelew (John Hiatt, Richard Thompson), they range from the pearly, angelic “What Do You Mean?” and southern humidity of “Forthright” to the bristling “Got to Me” and hypnotic closer “Gnats”. Each is a distinct entity, a miniature world in which to get lost. Abetted by the likes of Don Heffington, Van Dyke Parks, and Bill Frisell, it’s little wonder that the results are so varied and dynamic. And Chesnutt has rarely sounded better himself, expressing a full array of vivid and contrasting emotional states.
Ghetto Bells opens with “Virginia”, which touches on everything from the Civil War to Greek mythology to “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus”. Moody and nocturnal, the song swims in Parks’ string arrangement and Liz Durrett’s backing vocals. It’s a bold first move, an imposing and weighty exploration of nationalism-as-patriotism with an undercurrent of violence always just beneath the surface. “Little Ceaser” follows in what might be the album’s only obvious thematic pairing. “And so the public has spoken / With resounding clarity / As to who they trust / And in what they believe”, Vic stretches out over eerie backwards guitar lines and what sounds like a giant gong. What the public believes in here is the goodwill and righteousness of a Holy Roman Emperor, “crowned by birth”. It’s not hard to follow the allegory to our current executive government. But instead of resignation or counterproductive venom, Chesnutt’s eye trains us to historical patterns of human behavior that put issues of the day into context, and hopefully understanding, however grim.
On another side of this eleven-sided coin is the 7-plus-minute “Forthright”, which twinkles gauzily as Chesnutt sings about everything from pot-bellied stoves, Dali-esque hourglasses and ants, and jars of hominy. The song’s refrain features his clearest and most tender stab at falsetto yet, tying the rich details of the lyrics together into a blanket of domestic and marital closeness. At such a length and pace you might expect a snoozer, but I find myself wading in the song’s atmosphere, not drowning in it. Similarly, “Rambunctious Cloud” keeps itself afloat with slow wheezing Cajun-flavored accordion, and inventive guitar leads.
“What Do You Mean?” one-ups the Greek chorus call-and-response of Silver Lake’s “In My Way, Yes”, though more oblique. Chesnutt and a choir of multi-tracked female voices take turns with phrases that prompt the other to question, “What do you mean?” before an answer is revealed. Like this:
Vic: Like a puppy on a trampoline.
Chorus: What do you mean?
No matter how obscure, ornery, caustic, goofy, or absurd Chesnutt’s songs bend and twist, they feel anchored in truth. You laugh, then get upset. You shake your fist, then roll your eyes and smile. That is the unifying thread of Ghetto Bells (also the name of Chesnutt’s publishing company): the songs stir you differently every time, and probably, as the years go by, more and more.