Is the Actor Happy?

Vic Chesnutt

album cover

"A Question in Your Nerves Is Lit. . ."

Vic Chesnutt has been confined to a wheelchair since surviving a car crash in 1983, when he was eighteen years old. Since then, through a series of wild and revelatory albums, he's developed into the great "outsider" artist of singer-songwriterdom, the rare storyteller capable of enchanting listeners with fanciful and farflung imagery in one verse, and shrewd, caustic, devastatingly blunt assessments of human nature in the next.

In the songs of Is the Actor Happy?, Chesnutt's best work, the normal order of things is twisted around until a benign idea becomes eerie, unsettling and chillingly uncomfortable settings come to seem perfectly normal. He sings in curious tones that at times seem intentionally off-putting—he'll whine like a child, lingering over some syllables until the words become grossly elongated, their very meanings distorted.

Chesnutt starts with subjects cherished by countless strumming-and-humming coffeehouse troubadours—musings on the costs and dangers of commitment, the sting of betrayal, what it means to give up. Then, through sheer idiosyncratic will, he pushes these subjects toward the macabre and the surreal. At times his own experience seems to inform the narratives—one gem here, "Free of Hope," turns on the caustic refrain "Free of hope, free of the past, thank you God of Nothing, I'm free at last." It's a despairing moment, a "man curses the fates" diatribe, and also a perversion of the oftheard gospel refrain. Chesnutt doesn't take it to church, however: He rises over the majestic anthem-rock backing, his voice defiant and fiery, making no attempt to disguise his bitterness.

Chesnutt's discography includes thrashing punk explorations and more sedate, image-rich writing—his calmer songs reflect the influence of such Southern Gothic storytellers as Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. Is the Actor Happy? captures those (and other) extremes, and presents Chesnutt at his most engaging as a singer. On the beautifully harmonized country-rocker "Gravity of the Situation" and the vengeful "Guilty by Association" (which features vocals from R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe), Chesnutt restrains his freakish impulses, allowing the startling and disarmingly wistful beauty of his music to shine through.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1995, Texas Hotel
Key Tracks: "Gravity of the Situation," "Free of Hope," "Guilty by Association"
F.Y.I.: Chesnutt once aptly said, "Other people write about the bling and the booty. I write about the pus and the gnats."
Catalog Choice: The Salesman and Bernadette; West of Rome; Ghetto Bells
Next Stop: Daniel Johnston: Fun
After That: Mark Eitzel: 60 Watt Silver Lining
Book Pages: 162–163

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#1 from Adam Herbst, New Jersey - 01/27/2009 3:34

Vic Chesnutt is a great songwriter and a great performer.  Try and see the movie “Speed Racer”  (not the one on the Japanese kids stuff) - it is a documentary about him.  Tremendous.  I love his first three albums - this one, Little (produced by Michael Stipe - Vic claims he just turned on the mics), and West of Rome.  Onion Soup and Strange Language are great here.  “I’m not a victim.”

#2 from robert - 12/29/2009 11:27

The rare storyteller capable of enchanting listeners with fanciful and far flung imagery in one verse,and shrewd, caustic, devastatingly blunt assessments of human nature in the next.

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