Like plenty of other folks in wheelchairs, Vic Chesnutt doesn’t want your sympathy. In fact, he can challenge the compassion of even those closest to him. Like the time a couple years ago when he left his wife and bandmates stranded in Milwaukee after a show, making off with the van and the tour money and speeding through the night, hell-bent on finding a final resting place or some approximation thereof.
Thankfully, all he found was a tacky hotel room in Florida (a state about which he once crooned “there’s no more perfect place to retire from life”), and after what one guesses was a harrowing few days of personal stock-taking, he chose to roll himself back home to Athens, GA, to make amends. Shortly thereafter, he began conjuring The Salesman and Bernadette, the most ambitious record of his 10-year-plus career, a character study that deserves to permanently shift his status from wily alt-country eccentric to Great American Pop-Art Storyteller— a wistful Tom Waits for the leaky New South.
Don’t worry about impending collaborations with Robert Wilson, though. The new record plays comfortably within the proscenium of stereo speakers, even with the 13 members of Nashville’s ambient country-soul big band Lambchop crowding the stage. It sure is a different vibe from 1996’s About To Choke, Chesnutt’s major label debut. With a title that betrayed its claustrophobia, that record was a darkened room full of first-
person abstractions and periodic bursts of spleen and light. Unlike his four LPs for the indie Texas Hotel label (of which 1995’s Is The Actor Happy? shines the brightest), it projects a man who seems to have grown a tad uncomfortable in the role of Vic Chesnutt. “I must admit I’m flattered by your consecration/It’s a mind-numbing, spine-chilling/But nevertheless heartwarming gesture,” he testifies on the album’s closing track, “But as you make your advances so clumsily/I’ll save us both the hassle and leave.”
One could appreciate where he was coming from. Early in 1996, Chesnutt was the subject of Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation, a tribute/benefit LP featuring the unlikely likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, Soul Asylum, Madonna (via indie-rocking brother-in-law Joe Henry), and longtime hometown boosters R.E.M. After years of dwelling in the close circles of the underground, Chesnutt became something of a pop cause celeb, and his injury— a broken neck suffered in a car crash when he was 18 years old that left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound— more than ever became his identity. What’s a self-deprecating guy to do when yahoos like Ed Kowalczyk of Live start referring to him as “a hero of mythological proportions”?
One option is to write a song cycle like The Salesman and Bernadette, which allows the singer a mask. The Salesman in question is a man with regrets, a romantic quick to mock his own shortcomings, who isn’t afraid to unleash a stream of bile (or other bodily fluids), who spends a lot of time in airports and who tends to spill things on his lap a lot. Okay: so it isn’t much of a mask. But it works, seemingly giving Chesnutt enough distance to get less cryptic with his emotions, and the paradoxical result is his most personal-sounding record to date. Bernadette, meanwhile, is the Salesman’s distinctly sub-divine Beatrice, an idealized and somewhat dangerous love object who appears fleetingly in the person of Emmy Lou Harris on “Woodrow Wilson.” It’s a perfect cameo: girlfriend gets so much action as a duet singer these days, her voice would summon the ghost of unfaithful femininity if she was singing about lawnmowers— or presidential ashtrays, as is the case here.
Brandishing clarinets, vibes, brass, and pedal steel, Lambchop is one of the most interesting aberrations to come out of the No Depression camp, and they make a wonderful foil, furthering their obsession with the orchestral r&b that informs the floaty What Another Man Spills (on Merge, with winsomely freaky cover art by Chesnutt). On The Salesman and Bernadette— specifically on songs like “Replenished,” “Maiden,” and “Prick”— they create a sort of Vic Chesnutt Soul Revue, albeit one with horn charts more Salvation Army than Tower of Power. It all makes for an amusing end-of-the-century answer to Rhino’s new Ray Charles: The Complete Country & Western Recordings box, and it pushes Chesnutt to some impressive vocal heights, which he negotiates with easy Southern aplomb.
The big picture here is a sad-eyed Americana, one in which party jams and town parades are mainly backdrops for sorrow, where minor icons (including Adam Clayton Powell, Arthur Murray, Joe Namath, and Van Dyke Parks) only help to measure our failings, and the endless cycle of material longing and acquisition just leaves us emptier by the day. (One of the catchiest choruses begins “Matter seems immaculate/Until it is consumed or distressed.”) Zoom in on the players, and you get snapshots of a relationship unable to change any of this, despite shards of recollected hope. “Remember that time you took me to see Harold and Maude,” he testifies in “Parade,” a seven-minute meditation half “Pale Blue Eyes” and half Bryter Layter outtake, “’cause I didn’t know the meaning of the word catharsis?” Okay, you can get your foot off my heart now.
But in Chesnutt’s cosmology, those shards may constitute the only reasonable reason to keep on keeping on. In the 1993 biopic Speed Racer, he told filmmaker Peter Sillen that in essence all his music is about his accident. It’s not unusual for artists who have lost full use of their bodies to confront the life of the soul; author Andre Dubus has explored Christian spirituality, while singer Robert Wyatt has advanced a collectivist idealism. Yet in one of his earliest songs, Chesnutt is yelling, “I’m not a victim/I am an atheist.” He’s always been more existentialist than idealist, despite the fact that his natural mystic pal Victoria Williams got him to cowrite a song called “God Is Good” for Sweet Relief II.
By the end of The Salesman and Bernadette, after nearly disappearing into a suicidal bender, the Salesman finds a surprising benediction— through the act of memory— on “Old Hotel.” Given the name of Chesnutt’s first label and his recent parting of ways with Capitol (he’s now with his hometown’s maxi-indie Capricorn), it isn’t hard to read the song’s little epiphany as autobiography. Only Vic Chesnutt knows exactly what he found back in that rented Florida room when he decided life was worth living. But he continues to defy the gravity of the situation. Hearing him sing, “Soon I’ll be down the hill shopping/Giddy like a tipsy Mary Poppins” like Willie Nelson cribbing Busta Rhymes, you gotta be grateful for it.