At the Cut, from the same forge as the masterful North Star Deserter, is brilliant, subtle, funny, full of surprises, and like everything Vic does, devastating.  There is nothing and no one out there like Vic Chesnutt; he is a great American treasure. – Michael Stipe (R.E.M.)

Chesnutt’s second album to feature musicians from Thee Silver Mt. Zion, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Witchies and Guy Picciotto from Fugazi (who also co-produced the record with Howard Bilerman of Arcade Fire fame)  picks up where North Star Deserter (2007) left off, with an explosive group of arrangers and players allowing Vic to conjure snarling spittle and devastating fragile grace in equal measure.

North Star Deserter was highly acclaimed and signaled a true return to form for Vic Chesnutt – USA music magazine Paste ranked this album the best of his numerous collaborative records over the last dozen years – but the album remained criminally overlooked in the USA. The core group of players that emerged from this first recording accompanied Vic on two European tours in support of the album: Thierry Amar (bass), Efrim Menuck (guitar), Jessica Moss (violin) and David Payant (drums) all of Silver Mt Zion, along with Guy Picciotto (guitar). Together with studio members (and occasional live players) Nadia Moss (piano, organ) and Chad Jones (guitar), this same troupe has reunited for At The Cut.

Composite group portrait by Jem Cohen
Composite group portrait by Jem Cohen

Side One of At The Cut traces a gorgeous arc. Following the clarion call of “Coward” is “When The Bottom Fell Out”, a classic solo Vic tune, recorded live off the floor, the vocal tethered to the simplest of acoustic guitar lines, the fatalistic lyric delivered steadfast and strong. “Chinaberry Tree” finds the band in a lovely, loose, rollicking swing as Vic hacks away, “throwing myself at the cut / with a force heretofore unknown to me” and belting out the song’s eponymous chorus amidst intertwining lead guitars and violin. “Chain” features one of the album’s strongest arrangements, with piano and guitar figures deployed beautifully to support a fine bit of minimalist, oblique metaphysics from Mr. Chesnutt. “We Hovered With Short Wings” closes the side in a slow burn, with the rhythm section laying down a languorous groove over which Vic, in sweet falsetto, sings one of the finest poems he’s ever penned.

Side Two does not relent. “Philip Guston” hits the reset button – the record’s most angular and snarling tune (and a close contender for album opener) with some great guitar and drum work seesawing against the staccato verse structure. Memory and mortality are the commanding themes for the remainder of the album: “Concord Country Jubilee” is a sweet pastoral childhood reminiscence, “Flirted With You All My Life” a quite literal ode to the dance with death, delivered with a perfect and unaffected mix of exuberance, defiance and insouciance. “It Is What It Is”, as the penultimate tune and the album’s one cascading river of words, has Chesnutt piling one nugget upon another in a wonderful stream of vainglorious (auto)biography, a first-person testimonial that begins (while also quoting W.H. Auden) “I am a monster like Quasimodo / or Caliban, the natural man / ‘giving wild ripostes to my reflection’” and concludes with a masterfully poetic declaration of secularism “against the looming blackness”. The album closes with “Granny”, which should pretty much tear your heart out; a devastatingly tender and deeply affectionate portrait, without the slightest hint of anything mawkish, clichéd or over-sentimental.

For an album so overtly shaped by ruminations on mortality, by a man from Athens, GA who certainly knows of what he sings (having survived a car accident at age 18 that confined him to a wheelchair and has subjected him to an endless cavalcade of complications, procedures, emergencies and towering medical bills ever since), it is both refreshing and unbelievably heartwarming to hear how Vic Chesnutt sidesteps any of the obvious Southern Gothic tropes, lyrically and musically. No vaulted arches, gaping abysses or burning fields here – no ‘voicing’ of the preacher or the devil, no putting on airs. Vic manages to sing so authentically and wholeheartedly from and about his sense of place (the South, the wheelchair, 21st century America) because he refuses to sentimentalise any of it and rails against his personal fate without bitterness, without apology, with a sardonic and sometimes angry poetics of the passionately humanist and secular variety: wholly framed by the back porch, championing a humble wisdom, a sincere ethics (without moralising) and a natural literateness, certainly permitting a wisecrack or three, but never allowing for anything hackneyed or cornball or fake. We think At The Cut is a bona fide classic by a man better positioned than most to sing it strong and true.