PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Vic Chesnutt: Silver Lake

Dave Heaton

Vic Chesnutt

Silver Lake

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2003-03-25
UK Release Date: 2003-03-31

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.