It's no coincidence that of the 13 Vic Chesnutt songs covered for 1996's tribute album Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation, five were from 1992's West of Rome. Although every one of his albums has been hailed as his best, West of Rome is the fan favorite by general consensus. The reason is hard to pin down, though as filmmaker/photographer Jem Cohen points out in the liner notes to its reissue, everything about it "is just right". Michael Stipe's production on the album is more involved than on Little, with nearly every song featuring Jeffrey Richards on drums and wife Tina Chesnutt on bass, with appearances by Vic's nieces "wherever Michael 'heard'" their respective violin and cello, Ray Neal, Kelly Keneipp, and Stipe himself. The performances are loose and woolly, every bit deserving of the "ramshackle folk" tag Q Magazine once used to describe Vic's music.
Of the four albums mercifully removed from purgatory by New West Records, West of Rome undergoes the biggest modification in that the original opener, "Latent/Blatant", has been removed and bumped down to bonus track status. This fulfills the wishes of Chesnutt and Stipe, who fought with the old label, Texas Hotel, to keep it off the record. In addition, the closing instrumental which was initially "hidden" has now been named as the fourteenth track, "Little Fugue". Now we have West of Rome as it was intended to be.
With "Latent/Blatant" removed, the album begins with "Bug" and Chesnutt's familiar nylon-string strumming. The first few lines of "Bug" were taken from sidewalk graffiti and gravestones he saw on the day the song was written, "Michelle loves Willy / Our Little Sarah" and my personal favorite, "Stryper Loves Jesus". An oblique collage of images and references, each moment of the "Bug" leaps out for a different reason, be it an odd rhyme, melody, or the way Chesnutt bellows a word like "Walhalla." It's a departure from anything on Little, which was comprised mostly of character studies with narrative structures. West of Rome's songs range from travelogue ("Big Huge Valley"), to heartsick missive ("Where Were You") to elegy ("Florida"). Then there's "Miss Mary", an acid-inspired vision involving a showering Virgin Mary and crescendos with the lines "C'est la vie, whatever that means, la di da / And a Doris Day, que sera sera!"
But for all its diversity of subject and theme, West of Rome is Vic Chesnutt's most cohesive-sounding record. What unifies the album is the focus and attention each song demands from the listener; there's hardly an uninspired moment on the damn thing. Each song has something to recommend it, and the experience of listening to it start-to-finish is akin to travelling cross-country; as the landscape changes with each mile, so do you. Chesnutt's voice conveys an enormous range and depth of emotions, despite being labeled something as horrid as "an acquired taste". His melodies are familiar yet inventive; there are few singers, if any, as playful with their delivery. American Idolaters be damned, Chesnutt's voice is the real thing.
West of Rome is a hard album from which to name highlights. But if one were forced to winnow the list down to a few essentials, it would be crowned with "Panic Pure". The song's anchor is a low D bowed on the cello by Chesnutt's niece Mandy, with the rest of the band floating above like summer haze. Then Chesnutt's voice rises out of the murk, "My earliest memory is of holding up a sparkler / High up the darkest sky / Some 4th of July spectacular / I shook it with an urgency I'll never ever be able to repeat". The memory is uniquely his own, but expressed with a universality that should floor anyone with a still-beating heart. "Florida" is equally devastating and darkly comic. Written in memorial of a friend who went to the Sunshine State to drink himself to death, the song finds Chesnutt balancing wry observation ("Florida, Florida / The water table is fucked") with hard-hitting philosophy ("A man must make unpopular decisions surely from time to time / And a man can only stand what a man can stand / It's a wobbly, volatile line").
It's not all grim work here. "Steve Willoughby" finds a way to name-drop Louis Farrakhan, Jane's Addiction, and Deborah Norville, among others. "Where Were You" asks an unfaithful lover, "Where were you two weeks ago / A week again after your promise? / I was in your place of employment / Crying in my humus". "Latent/Blatant," much more at home as a bonus track, derives most of its humor from the excessive repetition of the title.
As with all of the New West reissues (produced by Chesnutt and Peter Jesperson), the extras were dealt with exquisitely to the last detail. Even the bonus track titles on the back cover are colored in the same theme as the album proper. Extra photos and artwork abound, with every lyric and Chesnutt's personal song notes included. West of Rome's two studio outtakes, "Nathan" and "Where's the Clock", are here. Also included are four-track demos and live versions of songs from the same time period. "Flying", which has been a live request ever since a piece was heard in Peter Sillen's Speed Racer documentary, is the standout. I'm surprised that it hasn't been released before, but even with 26 bonus tracks spread across four discs there are gems left to be unearthed. The heretofore unreleased tracks on West of Rome are icing on the cake. Longtime fans are sure to be pleased, and those green to Chesnutt's work should be astounded.