Vic Chesnutt North Star Deserter

[Constellation; 2007]

Styles: dour yet demiurgic outsider folksinger
Others: David Bazan, Mark Eitzel, Ron Sexsmith, Josh Ritter

Always the dark horse of southern gothic dark horses, Vic Chesnutt has been trotting out full-length gems for ages while enjoying flirts with mainstream success every few years. While I am sure he appreciates being occasionally fêted with musician-celebrity kudos and tribute compilations, he comes off nonplussed by it all, continuing to write stinging stories despite the surrounding hoopla. Admittedly, Chesnutt has been off my personal radar for the last number of years, after I hastily concluded his hit-and-miss albums (like 1998's Lambchop-assisted The Salesman and Bernadette, which has since grown on me) were something I could do without. Thanks to his latest disc, North Star Deserter, I am not only pleased to be proven wrong, but also ecstatic that I've rekindled my on-again relationship with this truly distinctive songwriter.

North Star Deserter is more varied than Vic's past chestnuts, played remarkably by a supporting cast of mostly Constellation Records artists (Chad Jones and Nadia Moss of Frankie Sparo, Eric Craven and Geneviève Heistek of Hangedup, Bruce Cawdron of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and the seven-strong Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band), as well as Guy Picciotto (Fugazi), T. Griffin (The Quavers), and ubiquitous Canuck muso-producer guy Howard Bilerman. Despite the risks involved in traveling to Montréal's Hotel2Tango studios to record tunes with a seemingly diverse group of musicians (the idea of friend and producer Jem Cohen), the results are staggering and inspired.

North Star Deserter starts in a mellow mood with "Warm," but it is on the second track, "Glossolalia," where it really starts to hum. A haunting, barren piece that would fit nicely on a Neutral Milk Hotel outtake collection, the music consists mainly of scant strings and bold vocals filling out the song. While the players don't quite speak in tongues like the title suggests, there is a beautiful union of choral singing that is as powerful and as epiphanic as anything you will hear all year. Darting between slow string plinking and dense squalls on "Everything I Say," Chesnutt sings "Some call her a thief/ Some people call her a prophet/ But her courage is brief/ Brief as Little, Little Miss Muffet." Along with "Debriefing," it uses the group of players to the hilt, as they control the breathtakingly quiet/ear-shatteringly loud dichotomy of these two longer rockers with the crackerjack skill for which the musicians are known.

The arrangements are great throughout, too. There is not a single superfluous note spent, exemplified best on "Over," which features the lone singer and strummer delivering a quiet lamentation/accepting statement on closure and death before an intense wall wraps around him near the end. And yet again, it has lyrics that you just do not hear everyday: "It sucks when it's over/ You can't get it back/ Why do we all want to/ Like a pack of necrophiliacs." The too-short "Wallace Stevens" sounds like one of The Shins' slower cuties, with Chesnutt crooning lines like "My evangelism was brutally taken" over the correspondingly jaunty tune. "You Are Never Alone" sees the salty dog singing satirically about the ridiculous, excessive behaviors of people and their penchant to "keep on keeping on" instead of making real changes. It is textbook Vic Chesnutt. It also just happens to have a lovely, sweeping vocal cadence that will stick to your cerebellum for months.

As perfect as the instrumentation and interpretations are on North Star Deserter, it is Chesnutt himself who constantly offers surprises. You can always count on his albums to contain some of the most wonderful, wry words around, but I cannot recall when I have heard his voice in such good form. Prodded on by the sheer clamor found on some numbers, Chesnutt noticeably pushes and stretches his voice in competition. On downbeat tunes like "Fodder on Her Wings" and the aforementioned "Glossolalia," he has rarely sounded so vulnerable, which is really saying something. Subsequently, on "Splendid," the ethereal, creaking instrumental textures make way for Chesnutt to intone the simple, repeated refrain "Splendidly full of life/ Wandering the countryside" as warmly delicate as Cat Stevens would (not the first time these two have been stylistically compared). The album sure is diverse, but Chesnutt's empathetic voice kills throughout all of it.

Because of Chesnutt's idiosyncratic appeal, there is usually something to love on every album. He's an amazing influencer and sponge on, for whatever group of individuals he collaborates with and on any particular recording session. But his albums can be patchy because of this, too. North Start Deserter, however, is in a class of its own. Never has he been as well-matched with his backing band as he is here. Never has he sounded so vital either. This is the best Vic Chesnutt album I have heard and certainly one of the best of the year so far. In fact, if another singer-songwriter equals North Star Deserter's lyrical mastery and plush arrangements this year, I'll eat my own ears.

1. Warm
2. Glossolalia
3. Everything I Say
4. Wallace Stevens
5. You Are Never Alone
6. Fodder On Her Wings
7. Splendid
8. Rustic City Fathers
9. Over
10. Debriefing
11. Marathon
12. Rattle

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