It’s best to let Vic Chesnutt’s music speak free of his physical deficiencies. Despite photos in the liner notes Ghetto Bells depicting him sitting uncomfortably in his wheelchair, furry crown atop his head, the twelfth album from Chesnutt, who was paralyzed by a 1983 car accident, isn’t a gimpy man’s folk. He’s been making music too long for that.
What seventeen years as a solo artist has deservedly brought him is an impressive group of friends, many of whom managed to show up on this record. Among them are Van Dyke Parks, as arranger and multi-instrumentalist, drummer Don Heffington from the Jayhawks, and jazzman Bill Frisell on, as Chesnutt describes them, “expansive guitars.”
Ghetto Bells finds Chesnutt running the gauntlet — string-laden balladry, desert folk-rock, thumb-piano noodling. Of course, Chesnutt’s gray-haired cronies make this diversity possible. Ever sympathetic to his boss’s foibles, Frisell’s guitars bend and swirl around Heffington’s restless drums. Frisell comes hard and heavy on “Got to Me,” and “Forthright” finds him drowning in luscious reverb next to Chesnutt’s moody proclamations. On “Virginia,” Parks’s graceful strings transform an oedipal love letter into high southern gothic, full of twirling parasols and strong bourbon.
Throughout all of this, Chesnutt remains a true, if kind-hearted, curmudgeon. Though one of the album’s least interesting musically, “Vesuvious” may contain its best line (“Christian charity is a doily over my death boner” — a proper reception for Pope Benedict XVI if there ever were one), and the rocking-chair metaphors of “Little Ceasar” take aim at Dubya with deadly accuracy.
Still, there’s a soft side to Chesnutt, uncomfortable in its physical intimacy, that can be breath-taking, especially if you can learn to look past the wheelchair and see the songwriter under the furry crown. One of the record’s standouts, “What Do You Mean?,” has our man in conversation with a chorus of females whose repeated question finally forces Chesnutt to answer with an image of universal, simple appeal — “Contentment.”