On his 12th album, Vic Chesnutt comes disappointingly close to selling out. Silver Lake is far shallower than Chesnutt’s usual waters. Often Silver Lake feels vacuous and over-produced, but it doesn’t totally undermine Chesnutt’s reputation for bold, cathartic, soulful authenticity. The album is ultimately a false step, but the trip is painlessly blithe.
On works like About to Choke and West of Rome, Chesnutt’s music is peerless. His voice is a braiding of gnarled growl, trickster yodel, and child-pure falsetto that channels Neil Young and Cat Stevens. His spare instrumentation provides haunting accompaniment. His unflinchingly honest storytelling parallels the Southern Gothic literary tradition: the drunk at the duty-free shop, the backcountry girl who boasts that her father looks like Woodrow Wilson, wayward lovers who reunite to “Hang out all night in the familiar fluorescent light of Dunkin’ Donuts.” Chesnutt country is overgrown with living sins, small victories, civic parades, supermarket flirtation, divine grace and pervasive decay.
Vic Chesnutt himself is a character only Flannery O’Connor could conceive — a strange genius paralyzed by a tragic past, in this case a car accident that bound him to a wheelchair. His raw twang and stubborn, cranky demeanor suggest a long struggle against his own self-doubts and disappointments. This is especially evident in his early works, the beautiful, self-pitying albums Little and Drunk. But like many great wars, Chesnutt’s interior strife has fired an extraordinarily creative corpus, a testament to his talent stronger than any “might have been.” If his afflictions and anxieties have spiked his songs with an undercurrent of morbid fragility, it’s because decomposition is essential to both redemption and renewal.
Against this background, Silver Lake is quite a lightweight. This is an album you can judge by its cover: a glossy black-and-white glamour shot of Vic lying on the grass, wool cap at a jaunty angle, pretty-boy eyes gleaming, wheelchair fuzzed out in the distance. The music attempts to dress up Chesnut’s emotional nakedness in layers of well-spun silk, but the costume is ill-fitting. The album’s producer, Mark Howard (of Lucinda Williams fame) has polished Chesnut’s grit, and diluted his voice with soupy, distracting harmonies from an overcrowded back-up band.
But the glimpses of wisdom in “2nd Floor” and “Styrofoam” show that he is just on holiday, fooling around. The result resembles his work in Brute (with Widespread Panic). There’s a tendency in some parts of the South to saturate iced tea with sugar and lemon to mask its bitterness. Vic Chesnutt certainly deserves a sweet spring sabbatical, but I hope his sojourn into Candyland is short. We need him to help us find the truth, grace and farce in our own world.