Home > Uncategorized > Don’t let the preachers and teachers and hipsters fool you; there ain’t no rips in the fabric.

Don’t let the preachers and teachers and hipsters fool you; there ain’t no rips in the fabric.

There is always danger in writing about the recently deceased. Death tends to bring out the nicest and most noble impulses in people, a tendency that can sometimes lead to patronizing, pandering, or whitewashed, and therefore ultimately disingenuous, retrospectives of the deceased’s legacy. Likewise, death tends to be romanticized and turn neophytes instantaneously and miraculously into the foremost expert on the work of the deceased. I present this blog entry to you with a confession and an acknowledgement. The confession is that I am indeed something of a Vic Chesnutt neophyte; the acknowledgement is that I may contradict myself at times during this entry, because the conflicting feelings I will be discussing are fairly complex and overlapping. Proceed with caution.

On December 25, 2009, Athens, GA musician Vic Chesnutt passed away after an apparent suicide attempt that left him in a coma. It perhaps should not have come as a surprise, but still it did shock and surprise many people. A second confession: I had not thought about Chesnutt in many years when the news of his coma hit the internet. I had known of Chesnutt in the early ’90s as a result of Michael Stipe being an outspoken fan and producing his early albums. I had heard some of the songs off of those albums and liked what I heard, but I had never taken the plunge and actually purchased any of those early discs. In 1996 I purchased the charity compilation Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation – The Songs of Vic Chesnutt, a charity compilation that featured the likes of R.E.M., Sparklehorse, the Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, and Madonna and did more to raise Chesnutt’s public profile than any of his actual recordings ever did. Ongoing idle curiosity about Chesnutt, compounded with my growing interest in Merge Records, led me to purchase my first Chesnutt album, The Salesman And Bernadette, in 1998. Unfortunately, I found that the album, a collaboration with Lambchop and a concept album to boot, never really clicked with me, and I sort of lost track of Chesnutt for the next decade plus.

The news of Chesnutt’s death affected me in an odd way. I had never really felt any close attachment to his music, and the fact that I hadn’t thought about him in so long ensured that I did not have the sudden “he’s gone” shock that so often accompanies high-profile deaths. Rather, knowing the back story of Vic and his relentless medical bills and growing debt (a back story that I will not recount for you, but I do recommend you find out if you do not already know), I felt as if the contemporary health care system and insurance companies had claimed another victim. I do not mean to dehumanize Vic by turning him into a poster boy or reducing him to a symbol for a cause, but seriously, if anybody could serve as an example of how the broken system turns us all into victims, and why it so desperately needs to be reformed, it is Vic. Nobody should have to accrue $50,000 of debt – especially when that person has medical insurance – and basically be driven to suicide. Nobody.

Anyway, back to the music… in the days after his death, I became increasingly curious about Chesnutt’s output. Although The Salesman and Bernadette had left me cold, it was obvious that a lot of people loved him, and perhaps it was time for a reassessment. I went to my local record store and picked up both of his 2009 albums, At the Cut and Skitter on Take Off, which were remarkably released two months apart this past autumn. Interestingly, the two albums could hardly be more different, sonically. At the Cut is an at times densely layered record, recorded with a full band that includes members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, A Silver Mount Zion, and Fugazi. The band adds an oppressive yet compelling tension and despair to Chesnutt’s rather sparse arrangements, making the album feel more like a collaborative effort than a solo record. Chesnutt’s own guitar playing often takes a back seat to the performances by the band, as evidenced in the aggressive violin drones in the impressive, monolithic opening track, “Coward.” The poignant centerpiece of the record, however, is the less embellished song “Flirted With You All My Life,” which Chesnutt ironically had intended to be his break-up song to death. Personifying death as a seductive lover, Chesnutt details the ups and downs of their relationship while finally coming to the conclusion, “really, I’m not ready.” Unfortunately, this was apparently not entirely the case.

Skitter on Take Off, on the other hand, is a much quieter, sparser affair, much of it played only by Chesnutt accompanying himself on acoustic guitar with the occasional contribution of producers Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkin. Naturally, the lyrics take center stage on this album even more so than on At the Cut, because there are no embellishments to distract he listener from Chesnutt’s words. The result is that, although this album is not as sonically oppressive and agitating as its predecessor, Skitter on Take Off is every bit as harrowing a listen – the bare bones production and occasional clipping of Chesnutt singing a bit too closely into the microphone give these songs a raw, exposed-nerve quality, particularly on pieces such as the grimly finger-wagging “Dick Cheney” and the triumphantly bitter Pyrrhic victory kiss-off of “My New Life.” Even hints of optimism, such as the gorgeously laid-back “Rips in the Fabric,” are tinged with sadness.

The purpose of this blog post was not to offer up full reviews of these records, but rather to explore the effect that Chesnutt’s death had on me and the role that rediscovering Chesnutt through these records played. Properly assessing any new record is always a difficult and suspect task at best; assessing such records in the shadow of the artist’s death, particularly an unexpected death under particularly tragic circumstances, is nearly impossible. I’d like to think that my assessment of these documents is not colored by his death at all, but I know that can’t be true. It’s possible that At the Cut is not as harrowingly heartbreaking as I think it is, that it only sounds that way because I am projecting his suicide onto this. I don’t think this is the case, but only time will tell. In the meantime, if anybody has any suggestions as to where I should go from here in terms of Vic Chesnutt’s catalog, I would love to hear them.
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