This Christmas sadly marked a years passing since singer songwriter, Vic Chesnutt took his own life. I wrote a reaction to his death in an essay last January and have since wanted to write with more specificity about his music. To review his song Styrofoam from the 2003 record “Silver Lake” could serve to convey his entire musical legacy. I’d just as soon keep the review small, about a singular creation, but Vic’s songs have a way exploding humble private musings into big deals.
Styrofoam is a song that chews the gristle of Chesnutt’s personal anguish—a subject that’s been the fodder for many of his songs. And yet, through his talented writing, the rehashing of painful feelings doesn’t lose flavor or wither into simple self-loathing. The song begins by whittling an analogy into a metaphor, “Emotion drains — like the contents of a cooler. My thorax is Styrofoam,” a sentiment that can initiate any first time listener to Vic’s idiomatic blend of heart melting pathos with sly gritty realism. It’s a bold statement of weariness whose wit only makes it sharper.
The wordplay of pairing thorax with Styrofoam is so succinct it feels spring-loaded. The upper body is rarely made into a symbol as with the heart or brain— but for Chesnutt, who was left paraplegic by a car wreck at 18, bodily associations are reassessed. And just as you’re considering the significance of being reduced to a thorax, he provides the next lines, “I’m a cheap spent shell, and a biohazard. Grind me up then mail me away.” Extending the comparison of himself to a crappy throwaway cooler lets you know styrofoam wasn’t a frivolous image, but a sincere means of expressing the alienation of mind from body. He uses the notion of Styrofoam; a ubiquitous, cheap, modern material to come to terms with the unglamorous reality of mortal bodies. It’s the coy attitude of “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
I should say, as bleak as these lyrics get, the tune and the tone of his singing are resolute and strangely comforting. An ethereal guitar track played backwards sets the soundscape with a reflective mood and Vic’s gentle strumming in real time sits warmly on the surface. The recording, produced by Mark Howard, and accompanied lovingly by some talented musicians on drums, guitar and keyboard sounds like a beautiful sunset. You listen on, feeling like things will get better when Vic says, “Maybe transmogrified. I’ll be satisfied—that finally at long last, I’m harmless,” which is not the happy ending one hopes for, but a peaceful alternative to certain pain. The hefty obscure words like transmogrified Vic coos in his southern drawl might feel out of place in song (and likely have not appeared musically before), but they balance the absurdity of his situation as a wheelchair-bound rocker.
Vic explains himself next in a sober reckoning of what it means to live depressed, “It is simply so. It’s my chemical makeup. I slough it off every 28 days.” This is the sort of explanation that surely comes after other stages of grieving have been exhausted. Its acceptance of an impasse that allows the song to pivot and Vic turns the mirror on the listener, instructing with vigor, “So raise your hand—and ask yourself a question. But make it the powerful one. And if you answer by rote—and pap comes from your throat, just tidy up and think of me in pieces.” He is throwing down the gauntlet and challenging the audience to be honest with themselves, having laid himself bare. Instead of coming off as combative, his sympathetic voice recognizes the difficulty of honest self-critique. He doesn’t quite expect the powerful question to be realized. It’s a rather brave thing to use his own vivid misery as an example to help push folks further.
He continues to outline how he’s come to his own honest songwriting, “Yeah, the lousy poet in me can’t lie no more—and the warrior in me has gone and died before—and that hard, handsome Olympian was forced to retire.” His tendency to elongate the pronunciation of words wrings plenty of yearning from Olympian. And recognizing the slippery slope of nostalgia he makes another order, “So dig out the films—and all those yellowed clippings. Do them up then stash them for good.”He prods at the morbid wonder we all have looking at our past, but encourages the necessity to face painful memory head-on so as to transcend it.
While he has you stuck in that vulnerable position he repeats the challenge, “Then raise your hand—And ask yourself a question. But make it the powerful one.” This time, however, the song ends on an unresolved note. Exhausted by coming to terms with his situation he puts the ball in the audiences court almost pleads for the solidarity of honesty.
Alex Cohen is a Bucks County painter. He exhibits at Riverbank Arts in Stockton, NJ. To view more essays and paintings visit www.themagpie.org