Featuring Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra, Guy Picciotto, and a host of others, Mr. Chesnutt's latest opus is a monument of haunted beauty, splintered fury, gloves off and gorgeous.
All right, this is getting repetetive. With each new Vic Chesnutt album I find myself reduced to a puddle of effusive praise, to the point where I fear losing credibility. I mean, I gave 2005’s Ghetto Bells a 9, I just loved it. Where do I go from there and still leave the proverbial “one to grow on”? Particularly when the venerated songwriter drops an album like North Star Deserter from seemingly out of nowhere and it's one of the richest and most satisfying of his storied career. How can I impress this upon you, dear reader, who should by rights just expect I’m going to unquestioningly adore everything Chesnutt commits to wax? Should it be, “No, this time I really really mean it?” Should I concoct a pseudonym? Probably too late for that; next time perhaps. If you’re already a devotee, you understand the predicament, the natural excitement that comes with a new Vic Chesnutt record. There's allways more grace, more wit, more dirty humor, more idiosyncrasy and nuance. But trust me when I write that North Star Deserter, even more than its immediate predecessor, restores something to Chesnutt’s work that you’d never have known was missing.
Recorded in Montreal with Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, North Star Deserter harkens back to Chesnutt’s raw, wobbly, powerful first recordings. The studio polish that adorned his New West albums (Silver Lake, and to a lesser extent, Ghetto Bells) is now completely stripped off, gone and banished. Epics like “Everything I Say” and “Debriefing” provide a nervy assault that hasn’t been attempted as intensely since the days of Texas Hotel. This is not a record concerned with playing pretty counterpoint to Chesnutt’s quirks. Its quietest and catchiest moments are still aggressive with the singer’s conviction, as fluffy snow can still bring out frostbite.
“You Are Never Alone” waltzes in sweetly with wobbling keyboards and brushed drums before Chesnutt sings, “It’s okay, you can use a condom / It’s okay, you can take Valtrex and / It’s okay, you can get an abortion / And then keep on keepin’ on.” The song eventually builds to a rousing chorus, by turns comforting and unsettling. “You Are Never Alone” explores the widening gulf between action and responsibility, the false solace taken in cure-alls, and the promise of Biblical forgiveness as excuses for one’s present behavior. But rather than being caustic or self-righteous, Chesnutt’s song sounds tender, knowing from experience, a less brusque extension of his own “In Amongst the Millions”, which marveled at medical advances’ ability to keep people alive who “should be a dirty piece of solid red ground.”
“Wallace Stevens” cleverly incorporates that poet’s own “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” into its brief two-minutes, utilizing the same haunting organ tones found on Little’s “Mr. Reilly”. “Rustic City Fathers” builds on Chesnutt’s familiar, midnight-hued nylon-string arpeggios to balance static-laden strings, dots of electric guitar, and a distant bass drum. Both songs are inheritors to moods and textures their author has mined before, from “Threads” to “Bakersfield”, but sound no less vital or original. Recorded scrappily yet lovingly, they return the kind of spontaneity that can’t help but lessen in the presence of studio pros and bigger budgets.
“Glossolalia” stomps in a minor chord frenzy, a frantic minuet with a cascading, wordless chorus by the whole gang, while “Marathon” is paced as steadily as its namesake, backed by waves of feedback. Bare-boned tracks like the opener “Warm” and “Fodder On Her Wings” are balanced by tracks like “Everything I Say”, which in turn alternate between moments of solitary beauty and those of full-on roar. Then the might of the full Orchestra is brought to bear without restraint, a cacophony arises that is new yet appropriate the songs, which hum with desperate energy. Short of inviting everyone I know over to experience North Star Deserter alongside me, note for note, word for word, you might just have to trust me. This time I really, really mean it.