A few years ago, browsing through a junk shop, I came upon a cardboard box full of photographs, a few hundred of them, mainly brown-and-gold or black-and-white, stretching back to the early '20s. Entranced and half-giddy -- I'm a voyeur at heart -- I spent the next half-hour going through handful after dusty handful. The older ones, the golden ones, contained subjects more poised and posed; these were pictures taken in the interest of preserving oneself for posterity. The black-and-white ones were more immediate and told better stories: The subjects were at a backyard barbecue, in the kitchen stuffing a turkey, on a motorboat.
At first it was unclear whether the photos belonged to a single estate. But faces and settings began to recur: A puppy turned into a golden retriever in the time it took to flip from one photo to the next; a man -- Ed was his name, noted on the backs of the photos -- moved from wearing an Army uniform to a business suit to shorts and a T-shirt. Photos of wife Jane (again, named on the back) with two friends, walking arm-in-arm, quickly gave way to Jane with same friends, 30 years later, sitting around a card table. Inside the box were fragments of a huge story, a story that didn't quite make linear sense because too many big holes existed, but these didn't matter. Little crumbs of evidence provided adjectives and answers.
Vic Chesnutt's new record, The Salesman and Bernadette, resembles a box of photographs, with its somber tone and dreamlike visions. Within its 14 snapshots is the essence of a story, each song a tiny, confessional narrative -- like a photograph -- with defined parameters, protagonists and vibe that combine to suggest something bigger and less controllable.
The Salesman and Bernadette was recorded in Nashville with the country orchestra Lambchop, whose own records are lush rural soundscapes. Consisting of 13 or so members who create music on guitars, bass, drums, horns, wind instruments, organs, whistles, accordions and lap steel, Lambchop makes music that would seem to be at odds with Chesnutt's, which has, until now, been dry and bare. Chesnutt's rough drawl and acoustic guitar always seem parched, even though he usually uses a band. In fact, The Salesman and Bernadette sounds as much, if not more, like one by Lambchop as one by Vic Chesnutt. During a phone conversation with Chesnutt from his home in Athens, Ga., I relate this assessment. "That's good ... that's good," Chesnutt replies. "That's how I imagined it. They (Lambchop) kind of wrapped around me like a blanket, in a way. It was really easy to do -- very, very easy. And that's what I wanted for this record. I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, Capitol (his former record label) -- I've gotta make a really slick record. I just was like, 'I want to have some fun and do a little number.'"
Because the album was recorded on five consecutive weekends -- Lambchop's members had day jobs to contend with -- Chesnutt prepared most of the details beforehand: He picked the songs he wanted to record, sequenced them in the proper order and then recorded them sequentially. This attention to order suggests that the artist had an intention of telling one big story. "Well," Chesnutt confirms, "there was. It was very specific when I did it. When I got these songs together, it was. I was trying to tell a story. But then I backed away from it at the end. But to me, there's still a little story going on -- (but) there's no way to figure it out, because it's too vague."
Settings move from an airport duty-free shop to a breakfast nook to an empty home to a courthouse to a sunroom to a park bench after a parade to an old hotel. Characters are indicted and exposed at every turn, with the narrator -- the "I" (who, of course, resembles Chesnutt) -- by turns reminiscing and spitting venom, expressing regret as he waxes poetic. In nearly every scene and setting, although some are teeming with crowds, the protagonist is desperately alone. "Last night I nearly killed myself chasing rum with rum," he sings in "Square Room." "There were crows flying all around my head, and I sure caught and ate me some/It's funny how I alienated those who I was trying just so-so hard to impress/Now half those fuckers hate me, and I'm just a fool to all the rest."
Underneath the dread, though, is a velvet curtain of sound that betrays Chesnutt's man-as-island tone. Vibes and clarinets sneak out of guitar and pedal-steel dirges; the sound of 13 musicians reaching a crescendo as Chesnutt croons is revelatory. "I didn't have any control over them," he says of working with Lambchop. "I just let them go to town. I wrote the songs, so they pretty much stayed true to the songs. I know Lambchop so well that I kind of knew what was going to happen anyway. It was very loose; we had lots of snacks to eat, lots of beers to drink -- good beers -- it was really fun. And we wanted to have fun. We didn't want to do the songs a thousand times. We just tried to have fun. And a lot of times we would play the songs different ways. We were like, 'OK, that was a good take. Let's do it really slow now.' Just for fun. Sometimes the slow version was great."
The result is the music of a drunken circus -- you can almost smell the alcohol in the music -- as the ringleader stumbles around, acting alternately vengeful and pathetic, trying his hardest to keep the story moving along. Lambchop proceeds unaware or unconcerned, deliberately pushing the time forward as the leader tosses in tidbits of a story that he only halfway remembers and has yet to determine a direction or conclusion for. But it doesn't really matter what he doesn't know, because the story can tell itself if you provide a few key figures -- a salesman and Bernadette, an Ed and a Jane and a golden retriever -- a setting and a few tidbits of extraneous ammunition, then leave it alone to gather dust.