Vic Chesnutt: Drunk

[18 July 2004]

By Michael Metivier

Vic Chesnutt’s third album, Drunk, was recorded before his second, West of Rome, was even released. But when Drunk dropped a year later, it was a very different beast, a prickly, cantankerous beast at that. It’s his most difficult record, musically and otherwise. Just when you’ve found a delicate moment to latch onto, it squirms out of your hands and scratches you on its way down. This is all to say Drunk‘s a hell of a lot of ragged fun. As reissued by New West, Drunk gets the biggest sonic overhaul of these reissues. The sound is clearer and fuller, energizing the heavier tracks. The artwork has also been restored to Chesnutt’s wishes: a sodden, orange, and frazzled-looking jester. More than the shadowy browns and blacks that adorned the old version, the new color scheme evokes the more aggressive contents within, like a giant burning sunrise when you’ve been stumbling around the neighborhood all night, casting inescapable light onto your sorry state.

The first line on the record is a propos: “You’re a freak of nature / You are a Siamese / You are in a pickle jar / For all the world to see”. The song, “Sleeping Man”, is included twice on the album, the second featuring the wonderful Syd Straw singing along, and added instrumentation from Vic and John Keane (R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Indigo Girls). I’ve always wondered why the song was doubled-up (the cassette version featured the whole album on both sides of the tape, bringing the total of Sleeping Men to four); the constant thud of the band’s arrangement and repetition of the lyrics always wore me down before the song’s end. I’m still not sold on it, but I have a clearer understanding of its prominence on Drunk (as well as the existence of the “Sleeping Man”/“Bad Boy Town”). The slapped bass rhythm that kicks the whole record off distinguishes itself from the first two records immediately; it’s a different work, and with its own rules.

“Supernatural” is Chesnutt’s most direct song about his debilitating accident, and right up there with “Speed Racer” as an “iconic” Vic Chesnutt song. It was covered semi-famously (and not too badly) by the rock band Live for their MTV Unplugged set, which could be the most an individual Chesnutt song has seen of the spotlight. Not a bad choice, as it’s one his most haunting and beautiful songs, regardless of its autobiographical origins. “Supernatural” is based on three chords, and arranged for several acoustic guitars on Drunk. Pearly nylon-string guitar lines wind around the strumming, each played as if it were being sung. Chesnutt mines each chord for all its worth: “Out of body experience / I flew around a hospital room once / On intravenous Demerol / It weren’t supernatural”. Even if you didn’t know what Chesnutt was singing about, the melody and performance are undeniable.

“When I Ran off and Left Her” and “Dodge” are charming in their dysfunction, offering up reasons to grin even while reporting on a crumbling life. The former admits “I tried to learn from the psychiatrist / How to stay calm and minimize risk / But I should’ve kept all those appointments / I’m a gonna need ‘em, I’m coming disjointed”. The music plays against the potentially dreadful seriousness of the words; they’re sung cool and casual over a gently swaying rhythm. Chesnutt’s diction also takes the edge off: “That’s when I started flashing on the little things that she did / All her little sayings and I started to wig”. “Dodge” foresees imminent collapse: “It’s just a general freak that is boiling in me / And I’m terrified what it’s gonna dislodge”. The next three songs could answer that question; “Gluefoot”, “Drunk”, and “Naughty Fatalist” are some of Chesnutt’s most shambolic, abrasive songs put to tape.

Among the bonus tracks on Drunk are two of the best to be included with the reissues. “Cutty Sark” is a strange little slice of relationship wrangling. The song finally saw official release as recorded by Chesnutt’s collaboration with Widespread Panic, Brute, for 2002’s Co-Balt. Here it’s presented in its original solo acoustic form. The other treasure is a live version of “Aunt Avis”, which also ended up in the hands of Widespread Panic on their Bombs and Butterflies album. Chesnutt introduces “Aunt Avis” to the crowd as an appeal to all his ancestors for assistance: “Help me Mama, for I have grinned / Save me Daddy from where I’m goin’ / … And help me remember how to be good / How to continue when I feel I really shouldn’t”.

Early versions of “Arthur Murray,” from The Salesman and Bernadette, and “Gravity of the Situation”, from Is the Actor Happy?, make appearances, along with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and four more originals. With the live song introductions included, the total tracks for this reissue total 27, an enormous offering. In Ian MacKaye’s liner notes, he admires the album for its toughness, saying “it’s refreshingly clear that the market wasn’t driving the decisions”. Amen. If you let Drunk stay with you, thorns and all, the rewards only increase over time.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/chesnuttvic-drunk2004/