When I first saw this in the Constellation release schedules, I thought “yeah, that would work”. But I wasn’t exactly sure how the balance would be struck between the epic avant-folk of the Hotel2Tango crew and Vic Chesnutt’s sad/funny, slightly wonky songwriting genius. The project was the brainchild of Vic’s long-time associate, film-maker Jem Cohen, a co-producer of the album. With Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, they set off for Montreal last winter where they were joined by the entire Silver Mount Zion crew, and various members of Hangedup, Esmerine and Frankie Sparo’s band. The resulting dozen tracks that make up North Star Deserter are some of the strongest and most diverse that Chesnutt has ever recorded, and the band arrangements are truly stunning.
The album opens with “Warm”, as low-key a beginning as any. It’s a quiet, fragile and haunted piece. Everyone joins in for the second track, the seasick folk singalong “Glossolalia”, which has the Silver Mount Zion stamp all over it. The lyrics are magnificent alliterative poetry “but I bask in a beautiful byproduct / from twisting torque of dichotomy / what my eyes do see / in this spilling, dead wicked desert / it dances born of babble / is now raison d’etre for the rabble”.
“Everything I Say” is the first of two epic, wigged-out rock epics on the album. The other is “Debriefing”. Each is two tracks from either end of the album, and provide the two occasions when Vic takes a back seat to the ensemble. Both are examples of the kind of brutal, yearning epics that Constellation does better than anyone.
“Fodder On Her Wings” is the only cover on the record. It’s a Nina Simone song, played as a duo by Chesnutt and SMZ violinist Jessica Moss, whose violin gives the song a stunning, lonely melancholy. Both “Marathon” and “Splendid” are bathed in warm fuzz guitar. “Over” is a naked ode to death, and at the same time a dismissal of the wishful thinking of the ‘life after death’ brigades – “a pack of necrophiliacs”. The basic message is life is short – deal with it, and enjoy it while you have it.
The set ends with the tiny vignette “Rattle”, all six lines of it. It gives the record a kind of symmetry. North Star Deserter is Vic Chesnutt’s eleventh LP. The previous ten – from 1990’s Little through to 2005’s Ghetto Bells – have all been of a consistently high standard, but this one could well be his masterpiece.