“I was supposed to tell you the case of a cult / It’s called the cult of inspiration and it is rewarding”, Vic Chesnutt sings on his fourth record, Is the Actor Happy?, referencing the artists’ collective he belonged to along with Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner and others. The full member list has never to my knowledge been revealed, but Chesnutt has had a knack over the years for fruitful collaborations and partnerships. Is the Actor Happy? was produced by Athens, Georgia swami John Keane (R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Indigo Girls), features a duet with Michael Stipe, a song co-written by Rob Veal (Dashboard Saviors), and is performed by the Vic’s Skiffle Group, comprised of Jimmy Davidson, Alex McManus (Lambchop, the Bruces), and wife Tina Chesnutt.
Chesnutt has called Is the Actor Happy? “songs to play in front of a hostile audience”. Many of the songs were culled from the Skiffle Group tours that preceded it, though it’s hard to imagine crowds not enjoying what they heard. All of that road-testing resulted in tighter performances, and what many call Chesnutt’s best-sounding record. With additional remastering for the New West reissue, Is the Actor Happy? does indeed sound great. Chesnutt’s trademark nylon string guitars are washed in reverb, giving the album a lush, liquid feel. The arrangements are more carefully conceived than his prior releases, but come off no less spontaneous. It stands at about the midway point in his recorded output, a bridge between the rawness of his earlier recordings and the layered production of his later work.
Is the Actor Happy? is made up of two distinct halves. The first half of the record is mostly major key and upbeat, while the latter is darker and slightly edgier before closing with the gentle Chesnutt/Stipe duet, “Guilty By Association”. The whole affair kicks off with “Gravity of the Situation”, which is also the subtitle of the star-studded Sweet Relief tribute album in his honor. Each of the four verses focuses on an image or detail whose significance is more than it would seem: “We blew past the army motorcade / And it’s abnormal load haulage / The gravity of the situation / Came on us like a bit of new knowledge”. Exactly what that gravity entails is never explained, only that it’s crucial to note that life is worth giving your attention. “A fat hungry English crow / Picking at a carcass” is a sight millions of people drive by and ignore every day (or an American crow if you prefer). But the implications of the event, though “hard to focus and harness”, have potential to be staggering if considered. Poet Forrest Gander makes the point in his introductory notes that Chesnutt avoids “I-love-you-I-need-you-I-just-don’t-know-what-to-do-since-you-left-me clichés”. Are badger carcasses, onion soup, and freakish nipples any less worthy of song?
“Sad Peter Pan” skirts romantic woe, though the recipient of lines like “You touched me and then you ran / And left some sad Peter Pan” isn’t nominally a lover, nor would it have to be for the song to make sense. An encounter (of whatever kind) may have left the song’s narrator “all alone and awkward”, but “a transformation, I swear it will occur”. This is not the language of a thousand sad sack guitar-slingers. There aren’t too many sensitive rock guys who would admit they “just want to be Aaron Neville”, much less with a “denim shirt all dark with sweat”. “Onion Soup” is an exploration of friendship stretched across distance: “I wrote you an eloquent postcard once about this most exquisite onion soup / But of course I never mailed it though ‘cause it was your turn in the loop”. What’s interesting from a songwriting perspective is that though most people haven’t experienced the details of the event, they understand the underlying emotions immediately. The specifics are what make Chesnutt’s songs rich, fun, and engaging.
As its title portends, “Free of Hope” is Chesnutt as his most cynical. It’s the first song on Is the Actor Happy? in a minor key, with wordless vocals that sound as if issued from a distant, underwater minaret. “Bricks are dirty, lakes are dead / The family dog is mad / Baby brother’s science beakers are all broken / Now the yard peacocks are all sad”. What would be an ideal suburban nuclear family is revealed as worthy of little more than escape. The choruses crash, and the overall mood is ominous, but the song is anything but heavy-handed. “Big brother’s at Columbia University / Quote unquote he’s tanning beaver pelts” sets a new standard for mixing creepiness with humor. “Betty Lonely” is an overlooked masterpiece, as mysterious and beautiful as the old woman it describes. Punctuated by lyrical guitar figures that bookend the song and separate the verses, the song makes palpable the sweltering and spooky, hanging moss-draped ambience of the Gulf Coast. Backed by an “angel chorus” of a multi-tracked Liz Durrett and haunting slide guitar work, Vic sings “Betty Lonely just talks to her grandbaby / Everybody else she blots them out / But her words stick like a flounder gig”. In turn, so do his.
Per usual, the bonus tracks are numerous and well-chosen (though I’d give anything to hear a solo version of Brute’s “Sewing Machine” on record one day). “Assist” is a plea along the lines of “Aunt Avis”, blues-like in its structure though not in melody or tone. “Duck in a Tree” and “Parameters” both recorded live in 1995, and 4-track versions of “Thailand” (with “heroin” tellingly preempting the word “contraband”) and the unreleased “What Surrounds Me” are all classic Chesnutt. Finally, there’s “Fun Party/Shoestring Store”, a collaboration between Lambchop and the Skiffles. As the final track on the fourth and last of the reissues, it’s a unique choice. My friend calls it a “cheap suit of a Tom Waits song” for its loopy, cabaret-like noodle ‘n’ stomp. As far as nonsense goes, it’s a not particularly engaging curio—but its inclusion here is appropriate. I’ve been exhausting superlatives for each of these four re-releases, probably exemplifying one of the “little loonies / With a salient obsession” Chesnutt is wary of in “Guilty By Association”. I’ve seen Chesnutt stop to burp mid-song during a live set, and heard him sing of a man in love with his dog. For all the literary depth, melodic strength, and honest performances included here, it’s essential to know that Chesnutt’s songs are equal parts silly and serious, heartbreaking and hilarious. That’s the gravity of the situation, and that’s why you should listen.