Vic Chesnutt seems to take as much inspiration from writers as he does from musicians. His West of Rome album shares its name with a John Fante book, he often mentions novelists in interviews, and one time when I saw him play live he leapt into a 15-minute story about meeting Gregory Corso and told jokes about Allen Ginsburg. Chesnutt’s music suggests these influences as well, yet not in the way you might expect. When writers refer to music as “literary”, they more often than not mean big words or vocals that are more spoken than sung. Chesnutt’s songs aren’t literary in that sense, yet he taps into many of the same storytelling talents that make the best writers so good: a heightened sense of detail, a perspective on life that is distinctly his own, and a way of conveying emotion through stories and images more than straight-out confessions.
As with so many great artists, Vic Chesnutt’s albums aren’t all that different from one another—you know immediately who you’re listening to—yet each sets him in a slightly different setting or highlights a different side of him. Some albums are more starkly arranged and recorded, while others find him with a batch of musicians building an elaborate platform for his songs. Silver Lake is one of the latter releases, with a gang of talented studio players (Daryl Johnson, Patrick Warren, Doug Pettibone, Mike Stinson, and Don Heffington) and a first-rate producer (Mark Howard). Though the press release for the album touts Silver Lake as a major departure in this regard, for the most part the sound is similar to that of The Salesman and Bernadette, the 2001 album where the band Lambchop backed Vic, and the two albums he’s recorded with Widespread Panic under the name Brute, 1995’s Nine High a Pallet and 2002’s Co-balt. He’s also toured on occasion over the years with a large backing band. In all cases, the expansive backdrops complement Chesnutt’s songs in remarkable ways, adding fuller rock and country textures to his odd little pop-folk ditties. On Silver Lake this is especially true, with Patrick Warren’s chamberlin in particular adding an ear-pleasing array of sounds.
While on Silver Lake the band goes in a variety of different directions—for example, adding a Middle Eastern feel to “Zippy Morocco” or jamming Neil Young and Crazy Horse style on “2nd Floor”—at the heart of the album lies Vic Chesnutt’s talents as a songwriter and a singer. His singing seems especially expressive here. He slows his delivery down to a gorgeous molasses-like state on the opening “I’m Through”, and sings the closing love song “In My Way, Yes” in true heart-baring fashion. Even when he tries something risky, like singing the 8-minute eunuch’s tale “Sultan, So Mighty” in a falsetto voice to mimic that of the song’s main character, it works to get to the song’s emotional core.
The feelings of people are always crystallized inside his songs, even when the lyrics resemble abstract poetry more than straightforward storytelling, as on “Styrofoam” or “2nd Floor”. Running through every Vic Chesnutt albums are tales of people who feel hurt, sad, overlooked or left behind, as we all feel sometimes. One of the most powerful recurring themes on Silver Lake is how men and women relate or misrelate to each other. A pair of songs deal with this subject in a relatively light-hearted way, while another pair dives into it with seriousness. The first pair is “Band Camp”, which deals with a man looking back in time at a free-spirited girl he was infatuated with, and the unconventional “Girls Say”, which takes stereotypes about men and women and form them into a meditation on the ways men and women miss what each other are feeling. Chesnutt delivers the song in a gentle, melancholy way, giving even the silliest lines emotional resonance.
The album is bookended with a pair of songs detailing the best and worst sides of a relationship. “Forget everything I ever told you / I’m sure I lied way more than twice”, Chesnutt sings to open the first track, “I’m through”. That moving ballad of resignation has as its more hopeful companion the album-closing “In My Way, Yes”, which is perhaps the most beautiful song Chesnutt’s ever sung as well as one of the most optimistic about life and love. While Chesnutt delivers a moving litany of images that form a beautiful portrait of both a relationship and a glowing view of the world around us, all of the other band members probe him with questions through CSNY-like in-unison singing. “Do you think you deserve it”, they ask. “I say yes, in my way yes”, he answers affirming his right to be happy. It’s a love song that avoids every single cliché about how we think about love. It’s also one final stamp of Chesnutt’s supreme gifts as a musician. New West Records’ web site offers a list of quotes from more famous musicians singing Chesnutt’s praises. Michael Stipe, Jonathan Richman, Van Dyke Parks, Kristin Hersh all tell why Vic’s the greatest. It’d seem like a hollow advertising trick if it weren’t so true. Vic Chesnutt might never be famous, but his songs touch on inner truths that lurk around us. They strike something deep inside their listeners’ beings.