By John Jeremiah Sullivan
He shares an otherwise uninhabited lyrical plane with Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Tom Waits, and that guy from Minnesota who did “Blowin’ in the Wind.” One day, Bartlett’s will quote his worst lines in a misguided gesture meant to certify him as that rare songwriter of whom we stoop to say, “You know what? That guy’s actually a poet!” Misguided because Chesnutt’s words don’t mean quite the same thing when they’re not in the act of leaving his mouth.
Forget phrasing. Vic has somehow turned pronunciation into an instrument. He’s constantly resurrecting and warping syllables that we have, through habit or sloth, nearly elided into oblivion. One of my favorite words to hear him sing, on 1996’s About to Choke, is cinnamon—as in, “Sucking on a toothpick soaked with sssin-uh-mon” (that last sound identical to the one Jamaicans use to greet each other). At times Chesnutt sounds like English might be his second language, and like his first was probably Gaelic (which he would have learned I know not how in Zebulon, Georgia). Listen to him voice the word “chock-ah-lot” (of which there isn’t any) on “Duty Free.” Not to mention that tercet: “Two drops of scotch/ Gonna end up on his crotch/Tonight.” It’s no small thing to freeze despair with a few unpretentious lines, as you can surmise from one insufferable minute of watching those poor handsome fools on MTV mistake unadulterated mindlessness for pain. The problem is you have to mean it, not just mean well, which kept Live’s Ed Kowalczyk from pulling off Vic’s “Supernatural”—a song from which Allen Toussaint professed to have “learned something”—on “MTV Unplugged.” More than earnestness is required to pull off a lyric like “I flew around a little room once/On intravenous Demerol./It weren’t supernatural.”
Maybe not since Dylan Thomas dropped dead of an insult to the brain has anyone squeezed so much meaning out of the sound of English—the strange noises that happen when all that Anglo Saxon and French gets mashed up in our mouths. Have you ever heard “Stupid Preoccupations” from Vic’s sophomore album West of Rome? Remember that line about “All these puny ingratiations”? The way he presses that “u” (as in peee-yew) through his nostrils, like a man trapped in the waft of his own foul humors. Then the gnashing enunciation of the Latinate noun: “innnnGRAY-SHEE-A-SHUNS!” He chomps the word up in his teeth while the loathsome thought just shreds his insides.
Am I taking Chesnutt too seriously? Sure. Somebody has to. He’s more than willing to play the clown, though he’s way too cynical ever to be a real Falstaff. “I’ve heard those chimes so many other times,” he sings, “but if I gave in, it had to of been,” and you know it’s well past midnight.
When he was nineteen, he shoplifted a huge anthology of twentieth-century poetry from a Tennessee bookshop, and it’s been his bible ever since. You can clearly hear a few of those Moderns in his songs, though it’s often like hearing their words read aloud by a kid who just dug up the stuff from some post-apocalyptic trash pile (a feeling reinforced by Vic’s early instrumentation: austere classical guitar, strummed, and a twenty-dollar Casio keyboard). The first time I heard him sing “All those wagging fingers/Are silly little stingers,” I thought of John Crowe Ransom’s “Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.” But no poet touched him so deeply as his weird little muse, the Englishwoman Stevie Smith, whose work he’s twice set to music. She would have bobbed her head gravely to lines like these, from “Sponge”:
Throughout this entire ugly outing,
I’ve been mumbling the convex
Of what I should be shouting.
But I’ll soon be silent.
You’ll soon hear nothing...
I hope not, Vic. I hope not.