Vic Chesnutt – North Star Deserter

Vic Chesnutt
North Star Deserter

Vic Chesnutt has a way of singing that blots out the guitar, leaving it a vague music bedding somewhere in the back of the listener’s consciousness. It’s a frail, honest croak of a weakling voice. For decades he’s been writing original music, roping new listeners into his orbit with the odd voice and good stories. In indie circles this voice has demanded a certain amount of attention.

Athens, Georgia music followers will recognize Chesnutt for his set of songs Is the Actor Happy, where Athens patron saint Michael Stipe professed his fandom and sang on “Guilty by Association”. In one of the finest releases in recent years A Tribute to the Late Great Daniel Johnston, Chesnutt with an all-star cast gave new textures to Daniel Johnston’s “Like a Monkey in a Zoo.”

Like Johnston, Chesnutt’s voice is disarming upon first listen, but the lyrics give darker and deeper theme before the listener has a chance to disarm the ears. Why Chesnutt picked the Johnston track, “Like a Monkey in a Zoo” is a mystery to me. I’d like to know. It can be assumed that the role of minstrel song writer brings enough attention. But when that singer is a parapalegic (Chesnutt suffered a car crash when he was 18) one thinks the singer has an added disadvantage. His songs must work even harder to earn a respect that is more than pity.

But North Star Deserter is serious music, and commands a certain amount of attention. These are songs about life and the way it mysteriously tapers away from the beholder. Some of these songs will really punish and amaze if you let them. Chesnutt went into a Montreal studio with crew from Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, with Efrim of Godspeed You Black Emperor and Guy Piccioto of Fugazi fame. The result is a blend of hard-nosed songwriting imaginations and guitar, orchestral tones from the apocalypse that we have come to fear and anticipate from Constellation releases.

But less about the overall scene this record casts. Let’s get down to the songs, starting at the ninth song “Over.”

The older a songwriter gets, the more he starts thinking about endings. Any one who is looking for love songs best look somewhere else. These songs are reflective. Chesnutt weaves everyday dialogue into song with images straight from the old testament. “Over” drips from a deep emotional well. Chesnutt:

“It sucks when it’s over/And you can’t git it back/Why do we all want to?/Like a pack of necrophilia’s…It was fun while it lasted/It was fun while it lasted/Now it’s all turned to dust/It was fun while it lasted, I must say/It was fun while it lasted/Now it’s all blown away/ Everything blew away someday/Everything turns to dust.”

No orchestras here. Just Chesnutt in his most conversational voice, telling us not to expect anything besides our end. These are the words of a man who has hung upon too many awkward silences.

“Splendid” opens with a guitar reverberated echo, playing on dead space the way Constellation bands (A Silver Mt. Zion, Godspeed You Black Emperor) do. However Chesnutt’s deeper reservoir of poetical influences come into play as well: “In the pasture we run free/by the spring creek we lie down/ in the pine thicket we are bricked.”

“…Splendidly full of life/We wander the country side.”

What could have been a sinister device (Track 2 “Glossolalia”), Chesnutt makes a nature dirge. By track’s end though, that damned guitar and the Silver Mt. Zion’s moaning strings give the whole scene a dark vibration, a feeling of unrest. Likewise, “Rustic City Fathers” continues gentle finger picking that is scrambled by slow tom drums and the creak of violin strings. These are the moments in the dusty attic; scary and sometimes as primal as the barest Jason Molina track.

Each track is inherently dark, troubling or lyrically challenging.

Even if the final assessment of this record was one of indifference (which may be the case for those who believe words like“dichotomy“ have no place in verse), one would have to reckon with the timelessness of Chesnutt’s voice and the way it talks about all falling to dust. Vic Chesnutt still finds it somewhere in his years to give us one oracle on the mountain track the way Johnny Cash does; the way Dylan and Cohen strove to do in nearly every song. “Over” again:

“When the fat lady sings/It’s all been sung/Collect up your belongings/And clear the auditorium/It was fun while it lasted/Now it’s all turned to dust.”