“My soul in its special hell of wet mortal limits/perpetually thirsting,” Vic Chesnutt sings in “Glossolalia,” the second song from his recently released and truly excellent album, North Star Deserter. And that’s one of the more optimistic songs. Over the course of the album, Chesnutt examines themes of loss, decay, and dread, many times from the point of view of either an observer or participant looking back at the sad wreckage. The result is an often harrowing album that is Chesnutt’s best work since About To Choke.
A feeling of resignation runs throughout the album. The characters in these songs, helpless to undo either past events or change the course of their current situations, are resigned to accept the outcome as a foregone conclusion, and with little resistance. In “Everything I Say,” Chesnutt uses the image of a barn (a loaded image that should get psychology fans really hot and bothered) to arrive at a wry and bleak outlook on the past: “The barn fell down/since I saw it last/it’s rubble now/well so much for the past.” The song “Over” is less poetic but shares a similar theme. “It was fun while it lasted/now it’s all blown away/everything blows away someday/everything turns to dust/big ol’ mountains do/as well as everyone of us,” Chesnutt sings.
Cheery stuff, to be sure, yet the songs avoid slipping into overly maudlin or self-pitying nihilistic nonsense. A lot of that can be attributed to Chesnutt’s voice, at times creaky and frail, and at other times steady and confident. Through it all, Chesnutt’s voice carries the authority of someone who’s seen it before and is not bullshitting. Chesnutt also uses his trademark gallows humor to prevent listeners from staring at their shoes and sobbing quietly while listening to the album. “It’s OK, you can take Vioxx/and it’s OK, you can get a quadruple bypass/and then keep on keeping on,” Chesnutt sings in “You Are Never Alone,” perhaps the most sardonic and humorous song he’s recorded since “Little Vacation.”
The most noticeable departure in North Star Deserter from Chesnutt’s previous albums is the sheer amount of loud and aggressive noise that characterizes some of the songs. With collaborations on this album with members of Fugazi and Godspeed! You Black Emperor, perhaps that’s inevitable. “Debriefing,” with its holy-hell racket of guitars and martial drumbeats, should jolt Chesnutt fans who still view him as the solo acoustic folkie who recorded Little. Likewise, “Glossolalia,” with a melody written by (whisper now) indie hero Jeff Mangum, features a wild mix of viola, violin, and cello that sounds like nothing Chesnutt has ever recorded.
North Star Deserter is littered with images of irreversible loss; like some of Chesnutt’s previous albums, it often deals in ugly endings and images. Even the more pastoral songs reach conclusions that are brutal and harsh, and the consolations offered are small. “Tears do evaporate/but oh so slowly like piss on a toilet seat,” Chesnutt sings in “Marathon.” Certainly it is one of Chesnutt’s more challenging albums. It is also one of his best.