Chesnutt is in top form on "At the Cut," both lyrically and musically. Always challenging to listen to--in the same way that, say, Tom Waits is challenging--Chesnutt rewards the attentive listener with a voice matched to the poignant, piquant, oddball poetry. Decorated with spare, graceful instrumentation, each song conveys a mood, a state of mind, impressionistically.
See, I told you it was challenging.
This is not party music, this is not background music...this is frankly art. One hint of that fact, something I really appreciate, is that Chesnutt signposts the source of some of his poetry and music with parenthetical references in the liner note lyric sheet.
My guess is that people would generally be highly divided on Chesnutt, as they can be with any mold-breaking artist with a unique vision. It would be fairly easy to hate the injured-hound voice on some songs, the inscrutable lyrics on another, the discordant arrangement on a third. But for someone willing to invest in a little adventure, the payoff can be extraordinary. I have always found Chesnutt's output, while sometimes initially off-putting, ultimately something I want to dive back into periodically again and again.
Nearly all of Chesnutt's music is intimate. It sounds as if it is being played in a living room, or at its most public, a small coffeehouse or bar. But the CDs only gesture toward the intimacy of a live performance, for which the CDs can only ever be a cheap souvenir. If Chesnutt is appearing near you, especially in a dive of some kind, for gawd's sake go see him. There's something about the brokenness of his music that only really shines through live. There's this Japanese term, "wabi-sabi," that points to the beauty of the "imperfect and impermanent." The Chesnutt concerts (which seems like too commercial a word for what they felt like) were profoundly wabi-sabi affairs...and among the greatest art experiences of my life.
NOTE ADDED AFTER CHRISTMAS: It is heartbreaking to report that Vic ended his difficult life on Christmas Day, 2009, so if you haven't already seen him, his recorded music is all you'll have. At the risk of editorializing, I wish to say that it's hard for me not to conclude that to some degree, Vic was a victim of a broken health care system. In an interview on National Public Radio he expressed that he was no longer able to keep up with his medical bills and didn't know what he was going to do the next time he needed life-saving surgery. I don't know but suspect that his suicide might have been the solution of someone who just couldn't take it any more. Perhaps no amount of health care reform could save everyone in Vic's position, but it's hard for me to imagine that compassionate and affordable care might not have made a difference. To those who have stood opposed to reasonable access to care for those who need it: Vic just might have died for your sins.