Graded on a Curve: Vic Chesnutt, The Salesman and Bernadette

After the better part of a decade on the scene, Vic Chesnutt released The Salesman and Bernadette in 1998, a brilliantly assured LP featuring backing from Nashville stalwarts Lambchop. The record helped to establish Chesnutt as an astute collaborator in addition to his solid stature as a distinctively folky solo performer. But it was much more than just that. For the album stands as one of the finest minor masterworks of the ‘90s, a beautiful piece of undersung poetic expression that once heard is unmistakable from the musical personality of any other artist.

First, a little autobiography: I’d known about Vic Chesnutt since the early ‘90s, reading about him through various small press ‘zines, alt weeklies, Spin magazine and the like, but I never really bothered to investigate since I’d pegged him as a late exponent from the ‘80s Athens, GA college-rock scene basically due to his association with one Mr. Michael Stipe. I didn’t have any substantial problem with that sound or with Stipe, or for that matter with the concept and institutions of higher learning; it frankly just wasn’t what I was listening to at the time.

And the early portion of Chesnutt’s career also found him in cahoots with a whole bunch of ‘90s alternative artists/acts, to say nothing of Madonna and Hootie & the [expletive deleted] Blowfish, due to the second volume of the Sweet Relief musician med care project being comprised of covers of the man’s songs with the goal of assisting the artist’s substantial health issues. And, y’know, that was an exceptionally worthwhile endeavor. But again, whilst that was happening, I was digging Keiji Haino, Jandek, and Magma.

I was also listening to Nashville’s Lambchop quite a bit, and it was my allegiance to that then large collective that eventually led me right to the doorstep of Mr. Chesnutt. 1998’s The Salesman and Bernadette found the ‘chop backing Vic on a set of finely structured and brilliant tunes that form an exceptionally rare thing; a song-cycle, and while I haven’t heard every record released in the ‘90s, far from it actually, I feel confident in stating that as far as song-cycles go, The Salesman and Bernadette is bettered in that decade by only Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Yeah, I consider it that strong of an achievement.

Now, part of the rarity of song-cycles might have something to do with how the form is a more than a little bit elusive, and sort of by design. Essentially a group of songs that gather qualitative strength and most importantly, thematic resonance from in-sequence listening, it’s the methodical advancement of such attributes as subject matter and the framework of mood that sets the song-cycle apart from just any old record a person loves listening to from start to finish. For example, as much as I adore absorbing the entirety of Marquee Moon or Daydream Nation, neither is even vaguely song-cyclic in nature.

How exactly song-cycles are unique from operas is where things start to get a bit trickier, and in fact there does exist at least a small amount of overlap. But here’s an attempt at parsing a main difference between the two. Opera is a form often structured quite similarly to classic literature, and the clear description and elevation of the events in its story are integral to whatever artistic power it achieves. One of opera’s go-to themes is one of the oldest around, that of tragedy.

And while song-cycles as a form have been extant for a long time, they very often possess a loose fluidity of approach that rubs up against the grand swell of modernity quite nicely. Concepts like abstraction and ambiguity are frequently touched upon. Hell, in the case of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea an ever shifting and building mode of abstract imagery is its very raison d’être. Song-cycles are not necessarily implicit in terms of lyrical thrust, but they do often employ unorthodox or poetic qualities in pursuit of their goal, and the result is that the casual listener can be left unaware of the specific nature of the whole shebang. I’ve often thought that if Van Dyke Parks hadn’t named his debut LP Song Cycle, most people, me included, wouldn’t’ve had any idea what they were really dealing with.

In the case of Salesman the overall vibe is more poetic than unorthodox, and this sets it apart from Aeroplane, a record that’s full-tilt in its image-laden lack of norms. In fact, I think it’s appropriate to describe Neutral Milk Hotel’s record as being solidly in the tradition of William Blake (I doubt I’m the first to make that comparison). Vic Chesnutt’s alignment with poetry doesn’t really call out to any direct precedent, though he was a vocal admirer of both W.H. Auden and Stevie Smith, two grandmasters of 20th Century verse, and this magnificent influence manifests Salesman with a couple of crucial qualities.

First, it helps to propel the strength of Chesnutt’s lyrics beyond the aural sphere and onto the printed page, where they stand up proudly as text. This might not seem like such a big deal, but the reality is that the vast majority of lyrics, even some of the greatest in fact, don’t make the grade when isolated from the sound that surrounds them. Chesnutt’s do however, and while he wasn’t the second coming of Frank O’Hara or anything, his stuff is easily strong enough to be considered in the same breath with estimable wranglers of music and language Dylan, Cohen, and Patti Smith (notice I made no mention of Jim Morrison. There is a reason for this).

From there, Chesnutt’s poetical legitimacy allows him to avoid telling a direct episodic narrative about his two titular characters, this Salesman and this Bernadette. Instead, he offers fourteen wondrous tracks that acquire the quality of aural paintings detailing interiority, often gradually perceptible fluctuations of mood and the significance of commonplace, everyday gestures and occurrences, fourteen pieces that need to be heard/viewed/read in the sequence of his design to adequately absorb the full desired effect.

The basis for The Salesman and Bernadette, the meeting and relationship between a man and a woman, is as old as time itself, and Chesnutt retains and amplifies the aged magnificence of this intoxicating connection while imbuing it with the difficulties, the neuroses, the communicative breakdowns of the world we live in, and as such the record stands as an assertive, startling and breathtaking document of artistic expression, though one that relishes its existence in an offhand, almost casual “minor” mode. It’s never awkward and always powerfully natural. Again, its greatness can slip by without the proper attentiveness, and I think that’s a big part of why it isn’t frequently noted as one of the ‘90s strongest recordings.

And as a recorded document, the ultimate test of Salesman is the overall quality of its sound. Musically, the record is essentially perfect, in large part due to Lambchop’s deft skill at fulfilling the role of backup while also imbuing the proceedings with their own highly personal mixture of modern country and a curious absorption of soul music’s deeply resonant and substantially emotional core. “Maiden,” the album’s fourth cut, offers up an excellent example of what I’m talking about.

While Chesnutt proved incredibly adept at adapting his personality to numerous eclectic collaborative roles, working with everyone from jam band Widespread Panic to indie psyche popsters Elf Power to more outsider collectives like A Silver Mt. Zion, on “Maiden” Lambchop really pushed Vic into thrilling and at this point uncharted waters, specifically that of an emotionally wounded Soul Man.

That said, maybe the strongest musical element that Salesman presents is a gradual unfolding of its sonic rewards. Upon my first dozen or so listens, I gathered the impression that the first five cuts were the strongest. From that point the album seemed to mellow considerably and suffer a softening of focus. But this was before I really understood the nature of this gorgeous beast.

Over time the whole disc has steadily grown in my estimation, each track revealing subtleties and pockets of elegant substance, with the entire collection of vignettes ascending to a stellar plateau. It’s almost enough to make me relent in mentioning that Emmylou Harris shows up to provide achingly sweet vocal assistance on “Woodrow Wilson,” not wanting to ruin the surprise. Ah, screw it. I’m a spoiler.

To reassess a thought in summation, the greatest trick of Salesman’s success is the modesty of its seed idea, again the meeting and emotional interaction of two people, a concept that has spawned countless thousands of novels, paintings, and songs throughout the ages. Think of it: A salesman, downtrodden, alcoholic, disheveled, hard-bitten, and worn-out, and a woman, enigmatically but enticingly drawn. It’s obvious they will come together, but it’s also inevitable that it won’t work out.

The Salesman and Bernadette’s “story” is so loosely structured that its lack of happy ending registers not as a bummer but with a bittersweet sting. Everybody’s felt it at some time or other, and its existence in the realm of art is wonderful and quite rare. And anyway, as an old Lit Prof once told me, happy endings are for children. I know that statement might be a wee bit hyperbolic, but its point is well taken. That Chesnutt creates two fictional characters on which to cloak this stellar ache helps to distinguish him from the ol’ woe is me troubadours of strumming and suffering impatiently waiting their turn at an Open Mike Night somewhere near you.

Apparently this album did receive a vinyl press back in the year of its release through a label called Pinnacle, but it was a UK pressing and it couldn’t have been a big one. At least, I’ve never laid hands on a copy. This means it’s a prime candidate for some contemporary label’s reissue program. If this grand idea were to become a reality, it would provide some posthumous tribute to the late Mr. Chesnutt, who took his own life on Christmas Day of 2009 after years of battling those aforementioned health struggles. But a well executed rerelease, would also help to acquaint new listeners to one of the more slept-on masterpieces of the last twenty-five years.


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