Provincializm: Vic Chesnutt’s North Star Deserter


It’s a very special day at SOTC and it has nothing do with the fact that Ian MacKaye has just been pronounced alive. Rather, today marks Provincializm #10, the first double-digit installment of a regular column written by one of the best living typers to use the word “booger” in a sentence, Mr. William S. Bowers. Given you the obligatory bio before, but all you really need to know is that WSB has not written a book about Nirvana.

So far in this particular LCD screensystem, WSB has told us about a girl named after a maxi-pad, briefly lampooned another weekly SOTC columnist, and fixed you up with some Swedish chick named Linda Sundblad. Read all of William S. Bowers’s previous SOTC columns here. Slip him the tongue at Puritan Blister.

Flesh-as-puzzle, via VC: connect the boobies, butts, and weiners

Provincializm: Ye Olde Songwriter Does (Not Do) It Again

by William Bowers

Particularly neglected in my lifelong failure to achieve omnilistenership, for no good reason: contemporary male guitar-based singer-songwriters who perform using their actual names. I’d have missed out on the work of Mssrs. Oldham, Molina, Mangum, Beam, Darnielle, and Houck–etc, etc–if they hadn’t elected to (initially, at least) bill themselves under bandish monikers even when operating alone. I never much liked Elliott Smith, and am indefensibly uninterested in hearing Damien Rice, Ryan Adams, Jose Gonzalez, et al. I “respect” the recordings of David Dondero, David Karsten Daniels, and Micah P. Hinson, but never reach for them when facing my CD wall after a heinous day. When using iTunes, I pointlessly/fitfully change the “Artist” blank for solo tracks by Malkmus, Pollard, and Callahan back to the names of their previous respective projects. I can’t finger this aversion’s seed: Maybe my psyche got scarred by a Jim Croce television ad that used to loop during my favorite cartoons? I do know, however, the lone exception to my accidental embargo: Vic Chesnutt.

I just admire the booger, possibly masochistically, because he’s among the least cuddly/generous artists in the English-speaking world. His belly button lint must contain intricate architecture that only he can see, because he’s taken encoded fussbudgetous navel-gazing to new depths, and across a half-dozen labels, for the majority of his seventeen-year career, whether being backed by Michael Stipe, his wife, Lambchop, Widespread Panic, Bill Frisell, Van Dyke Parks, niece Liz Durrett, or–as is the case on his new album North Star Deserter–members and ex-members of Fugazi, Arcade Fire, G!YBE, and A Silver Mount So Forth & So On. His embittered followers (myself included) keep assuring those of zilchy faith that next time, just you wait, he will release a Populist Coherent Artistic Statement Album that will win the college football national championship. And every time, he finds a more elaborate way to intentionally fumble the punt, even if one of his biggest boosters is on the sidelines (producer Jem Cohen, maker of films about Chesnutt, fellow-Athenian Benjamin Smoke, and the spatial implications of consumer-culture).

As only an outspoken atheist can be, Chesnutt is preachy, but seemingly without concern for his audience’s inconclusiveness about whether or not he knows something we don’t. His songs’ tempos often flirt with every derivation of tedium as they range from stately to funereal, committed to the stiff cadences of “sad music,” but without normative sentimentality, which might launch them beyond evil-genius isolation into the turf of communal regret. His diction and enunciation are legitimately poetic, demanding labor from his listeners, relishing collisions of the Latinate with Saxonisms/slang, and treating words like tinker toys, if only to result in discomfiting sketches that, despite their beauty, insist on their sketchiness. I still cannot believe that he opened his only major-label record with a song that moved from Chaucer allusions to the closing line “I felt like a sick child/ dragged by a donkey/ through the myrtle.”

That lyric is both veiled and obviously biographical, about the accident that paralyzed Chesnutt, who has been adopted, addicted, kleptomaniacal, and suicidal, and whose adolescent misfortune seems like the implausible climax of a Chick Publications comic-tract: cocky rock-n-roller drinking-n-driving underage in the Bible belt on Easter Sunday crashes into a ditch, to finish his sentence in a wheelchair. Yet a song on Chesnutt’s new album is named “Wallace Stevens,” after the poet who similarly preferred constructing linguistic fortresses to wallowing in emo-charsima, and who wrote: “Unfortunately there is nothing more inane than an Easter carol. It is a religious perversion of the activity of Spring in our blood.” Stevens apocryphally got religion on his deathbed, but Chesnutt sounds untempted by such a surrender: the new album contains a discomfiting ballad, “You Are Never Alone,” that re-presents Christianity and its promises as delusional Sartre-an damnations. “Over,” which perversely does not end the album, shrugs goodbye to a past it won’t let itself mourn, as the speaker’s rational mind disdainfully corrects bathetic capitulations: “It sucks when it’s over/ And you can’t get it back/ Why do we want to?/ Like a pack of necrophiliacs.” If one is going to police one’s desires that thoroughly, why not turn fundamentalist?

In a ‘witchy’ visionary bit reconciling heaven and hell, William Blake famously posited, “Without Contraries there is no progression;” Vic Chesnutt is plenty contrary and apparently couldn’t give two shits about progress as it’s typically divined. Negotiating tensions, but never resolving them, North Star Deserter is, in terms of his output, more of the same, by which I mean: little else is like it.