Vic Chesnutt, Silver Lake (New West, 2003)

Vic Chesnutt is a Southern singer-songwriter who's more respected by other musicians than by the marketplace or the public. Partially paralyzed since a drunken-driving accident at the age of 18, he's put out a series of albums with songs that veer from accessible to inscrutible, his genre from folk to country to art-rock, his lyrics from straightforward to as twisted as his body appears on the back cover of Silver Lake, silhouetted against a window in his wheelchair. And this release is no exception; in fact, the variations are possibly even more extreme than usual.

I've always resisted the easy classification of Vic Chesnutt as a purveyor of Southern Gothic, because even though he deals in the trappings of the genre -- tragi-comic tales of enigmatic characters whose only redemption seems to lie in death, his or someone else's -- his writing rarely stoops to the sentimentality that is its hallmark. In fact, I would have said that Chesnutt showed no evidence of believing in the existence of redemption.

But where does that leave me, after listening closely to Silver Lake? The album starts off with one of the bleakest lines ever sung in pop music, "Forget everything I ever told you/I'm sure I lied way more than twice," and ends with a gentle song about the glories of domestic love that asks the question, "Do you think you deserve it?" and answers, "I say yes, in my way yes."

Call it just another example of Vic Chesnutt confounding expectations.

Silver Lake is an ambitious project. It was recorded mostly live over a period of about three weeks, with a large cast of supporting musicians, near Silver Lake, Calif., making it the first album Vic has recorded outside of the South.

Between the languid and bitter opening track, "I'm Through," and the final strains of "In My Way, Yes," are nine more songs that run the gamut, stylistically and thematically. "Stay Inside," an agoraphobic's anthem, has lovely gospel harmonies and big, gutsy electric guitar charts that could have been plotted by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. "Band Camp" is a rocking slab of California pop with the indelibly catchy chorus of "If I knew then what I know now..." "Girls Say" is a funny, folky and profane exploration of the sexes' different communication styles, every verse ending with "Boys say, 'why you wanna be a bitch?'"

The album is also full of painful and unflinching poetry, among Vic's best ever. Take "Styrofoam," rife with typical gems: "I'm a cheap, spent shell/and a biohazard/grind me up then mail me away..." The folk-pop "Fa-La-La" seems autobiographical, the tale of a boy who doesn't want to go home from the hospital because he's in love with another patient. Images of nature that is beautiful but deadly in "Wren's Nest" are reminiscent of the Handsome Family: "The barn owl's white belly is like a flash bulb/instantly illuminated by a moonbeam/as he swoops silently before us/toward a fateful meeting in the forest."

The only track that feels indecently self-indulgent is "Sultan, So Mighty," a falsetto epic from the point of view of a treasonous eunuch. It's an effective bit of poetry and an intriguing metaphor on a par with Richard Thompson's "Pharaoh," but the delivery and the orchestral production drag it down.

But Vic Chesnutt is always a refreshing antidote to today's by-the-numbers pop and the saccharine sweetness of confessional folk. If you're ready to think as well as feel, and don't mind ending up with more questions than answers, consider Silver Lake.

[Gary Whitehouse]

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