A warm-hearted homecoming for Athens bard Chesnutt's earliest recordings
Athens, Georgia’s prickly and tender poet laureate Chesnutt?whose long unavailable first four albums have reappeared, trailing rarities, live takes and demos?is an artist everyone reading this magazine knows comes pre-stamped Officially Brilliant. One of those unsugared, idiosyncratic acts endorsed by the Great-n-Good; and if you’ve yet to get on the bus yourself, all those plaudits sometimes seem awfully close to the self-flattering good-taste-ism of collectors of Howard Finster paintings and shaky hand-held documentaries about Appalachian grannies. Ooh, darling, look: a folk-naif southern songsmith with a battered grin, a croaky voice, an impressively uncommercial back catalogue… and a wheelchair!
Well, fuck Michael Stipe for a moment. Admittedly, there’s no easily hummable way in, but even Vic’s stark, much-loved first album Little-recorded in a day in 1988 by Stipe, all deceptively simple guitar figures that resonate like howls?gives you the lowdown and more than justifies the celebrity hosannas. Ornery and wistful, fearlessly opaque and ferociously poetic, Chesnutt’s is a sceptical world peopled with bit-part cameos and ghosts, from the grandly iconic (“Isadora Duncan”) to some half-remembered schoolkid (“Danny Carlisle”). Second album, ’91’s West Of Rome (Stipe producing, but brighter) sees him peering out of his spyglass at human frailty writ large and helpless, all pig-headedness (“Stupid Preoccupations”) and Mark Linkous-esque charm (“Soggy Tongues”). The fiercer Drunk (’93) gets blasted on words and electric guitar, dragging goofiness and mischief through medical misfortunes (“Gluefoot”) and fuck-ups (“Kick My Ass”). Is The Actor Happy? (’95) leans closest to a ‘proper-sounding’ version of Chesnutt’s straight-no-chaser ethos as philosophical acceptance (“Gravity Of The Situation”) jostles with thundering despair (“Free Of Hope”).
Aficionados will gobble up the extras, particularly Little add-on “Elberton Fair”, West Of Rome’s heart-wringing “Flying”, Drunk’s country-bittersweet “Cutty Sark”and a sleepy take on Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine”, and Is The Actor Happy?’s joyous Lambchop collaboration. More sly jokes, more bruised self-loathing, more astounding turns of phrase, and all that ramshackle, magical-in-the-quotidian grace.
It’s never too late to pretend you knew this all along.