There is little doubt that the forlorn songwriting and achingly beautiful yet at the same time deeply discordant vocal tone of folk troubadour Vic Chesnutt is an acquired taste. He achieved his most wide-spread acclaim when he recorded and performed with previously established peers who were already fans of his intricate and honest songwriting, such as Widespread Panic, with which he released two albums under the band name Brute. Partially paralyzed in a 1983 drunk driving accident, in severe pain, great debt, and understandably depressed, suicide — which he attempted several times — was often a subject of his songwriting. Sadly, he finally succeeded, swallowing an overdose of muscle relaxants that left him in a coma before finally passing on Christmas night of 2009.
Chesnutt’s staunchest supporters and fans were songwriters themselves, such as R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, who produced Chesnutt’s first two albums. Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation is a 1996 tribute album of Chesnutt’s songs recorded by various well known artists including Madonna, R.E.M., and the Indigo Girls, with proceeds going to the Sweet Relief Fund to assist musicians in need of health care.
Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies toured with Chesnutt several times, and in 2007 he was a guest musician on Trinity Revisited, the 20th anniversary edition of their seminal album, The Trinity Session. It was at those live sessions, recorded in the same elegant church in Toronto that the original was, that Chesnutt and the Junkies initially planned to cut an album of his songs together. While that project never materialized, the Cowboy Junkies have recorded and released the evocatively titled Demons, volume 2 in their Nomad Series, a collection of eleven Chesnutt songs recorded by the band.
The ethereal voiced Margo Timmins and the hauntingly surreal music of the Cowboy Junkies brings a stunningly beautiful quality to Chesnutt’s songs, often difficult to hear in his own versions. While both Chesnutt and the Junkies are known for their sparse and somber studio recordings, the band takes the sullen tone of his acoustic ballad “Wrong Piano” and re-imagines it as a churning, raucous rave up, with swelling Rhodes organ, booming drums, and moaning guitar squalls. Chesnutt’s songwriting often addressed his troubled livelihood and ominous demons, never more so than on the melancholic “Flirted with You All My Life”, on which he contemplates suicide:
Oh Death, you hector me
And decimate those dear to me
You tease me with your sweet relief
You are cruel and you are constant
Listening further, however, to Chesnutt’s own recording — taken from his 2009 CD, At the Cut — one gets the sense he might have finally rounded the corner and seen a light, as he intones: “Oh Death, clearly I’m not ready”. In the hands of Margo and Michael Timmins (guitar), it’s given even more life affirming reverence. Elegant piano and wailing and distorted guitar envelop Margo’s opulent vocals, belted out in a gospel hymn, lifting the song to a powerful and elegiac requiem. Likewise, the Junkies add graceful texture to “See You Around”, drenching the song in swirling organ, as well as the lovely acoustic strums of the original.
The Cowboy Junkies embrace their mellow, somber side as well. They leave the dark and ominous arrangements of some of Chesnutt’s sparsest songs intact. “Supernatural” is all the more harrowing with gently plucked mandolin and somber woodwinds, while both “Square Room” and “West of Rome” retain their doom and gloom somber tone, relating tales of alcoholism and locked-in tendencies. A sullen, resonating string section adds moody, languid atmospherics on the latter two.
On “Strange Language”, one of Chesnutt’s most hard-rocking songs, the Junkies take it further by adding a boisterous brass section. It works to strong effect, overpowering Timmins’s vocals and some of Chesnutt’s most vague lyrics. There’s nothing vague about “When the Bottom Fell Out”, however. Again taken from At the Cut, the song once again finds Chesnutt contemplative, and relates the feeling of falling, catching a wave of air and gliding, but falling nonetheless. His version is solemn and glum, with single notes finger picked on an acoustic guitar. But on Demons, the Junkies turn it into a New Orleans styled funeral requiem, with slow, gospel inflicted organs and mournful horns. Timmins’s smoky alto is eloquent and gorgeous, and it plays as a beautiful goodbye to a dear friend.
Though Chesnutt didn’t achieve much success in terms of record sales or radio play, he was, without doubt, one of the most gifted and talented songwriters of the 20th century. Like him, Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies never really caught on with a mainstream audience either, but over 26 years have developed a strong, cultish following. Demons makes it clear that Chesnutt’s dark and solemn songwriting is naturally suited for a band like Cowboy Junkies, and should go a long way toward furthering Chesnutt’s own legacy.