Athens, Georgia-based singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt died on Christmas Day after ingesting an overdose of muscle relaxants. He and his touring band had just completed a brief West Coast tour less than a month earlier in support of his powerful new release, At the Cut. Chesnutt was 45 years old. He had been involved in a drunken car accident when he was 18 that left him confined to a wheelchair and plagued by a litany of medical issues (and bills).
On a similar sonic plane as his 2007 Constellation release, North Star Deserter, Chesnutt employed the same musical unit for At the Cut. The Montreal-based collective included Fugazi's guitarist, Guy Picciotto, who also co-produced, and musicians culled from Godspeed You Black Emperor, its offshoot, Thee Silver Mt. Zion, and Carla Bozulich's Evangelista. They provide a dramatic tension, a delicate counterpoint and, at times, an unsettling accompaniment to Chesnutt's bare (and sometimes cracking) vocals on songs filled with angst, bare nerves, sorrow and passion.
From the double-edged opening lines of "Coward," quoting Bay Area author Frank Norris' McTeague, "The courage of a coward is greater than all others," Chesnutt builds his songs in arcs, often raising the levels to dramatic heights, as in "Chinaberry Tree," "Is What It Is," and "Philip Guston," a pounding tribute to the neo-Expressionist artist. While the minimal, near skeletal, "When the Bottom Fell Out" and the touching "Granny" convey a sincere vulnerability, exposing the power of Chesnutt's narratives and storytelling skills, the autumn breeziness of "Concord Country Jubilee" and elegance of "Chain" showcase a pop delicacy often evident in his body of work.
The most unsettling song on the record, "Flirted With You All of My Life," feels like an updated Appalachian folk song, possibly its original intention. Masked in an upbeat arrangement, Chesnutt sings, "I am a man. I am self aware, and everywhere I go, you're always right there with me. I flirted with you all of my life, even kissed you once or twice... but clearly I was not ready... Oh death, oh death, of death, really, I'm not ready." Now, obviously, it carries a heavy irony.
Scores of U.S.-based artists live on a shoestring budget and are constantly struggling to simply produce their work, their art -- especially for those like Chesnutt, whose work is outside of the mainstream. Add in a burden like a major medical problem and the associated costs and the struggle can be overwhelming. We are fortunate recipients of their works of art. Chesnutt's death, if anything, serves as a reminder that under this country's current health care system, we are allowing our artists to die. Is this how we give back to those who have truly given? At the Cut serves as one of those many gifts of art.