Just about a decade ago Cody Chesnutt came out of nowhere to release The Headphone Masterpiece, a smart, slippery, and stoned fusion of lo-fi indie and old-school R&B. While “masterpiece” might have been just a bit of a stretch—the 36-song double-disc set could have been whittled down to a single-disc monster—the album was a brazen announcement of a bold new talent who seemed poised to push soul into a stripped-down and defiantly weird direction. Unfortunately, shortly after entering the collective consciousness, he joined Lauryn Hill, Sly Stone, and D’Angelo in that special exile Chris Rock once called “the island of ‘what do we do with all this talent?’”
A decade later, Chesnutt is back just as unexpectedly. But while The Headphone Masterpiece brought to mind an Arthur Lee album produced by Robert Pollard, Landing On A Hundred is a fleshed-out mash note to ’70s soul that could pass for a lost gem reissued by the Numero Group. Chesnutt is the type of guy that gets the details right, from the chicken-scratch guitars of “I’ve Been Life” to the Isaac Hayes-worthy horn and backing vocals for “Under The Spell Of The Handout.” “Love Is More Than A Wedding Day” is a nakedly, almost-squarely sincere tribute to the hard-earned rewards of devotion that could stand besides “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” on any first-dance playlist, and he even makes the respect-your-elders message of “That’s Still Mama” sound kind of badass.
A serious soul scholar, Chesnutt recorded at the same Memphis studio where Al Green and Tina Turner cut classic tracks, and “Chips Down (In No Landfill)” sounds like the work of a man who spent hours studying Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach string arrangements. You can’t knock the work ethic. But when listeners first met him, he didn’t try so hard to sound like anyone. It was enough that Chesnutt sounded like himself.
Landing On A Hundred never comes off like a work of mere pastiche, but it rarely sounds like something that only he would have made. Chesnutt is so intent on making conventionally authentic soul classics that he’s shackled the eccentric weirdo who used to write breezy garage-rock classics about looking cool in leather jackets and named an instrumental vamp “Batman Vs. Blackman” for no good reason other than he could. Hundred gets all the details right, but Headphone was thrilling for how it often seemed to get the fundamentals of R&B wrong, with Chesnutt singing about sex, money, and salvation with equal fervor and plenty of guitar hiss. A decade later he sounds like a man intent on proving that he’s a worthy successor to the greats. It’s a goal he comes close to nailing, but Chesnutt’s just not as exciting as when he was his own master.