“Coward,” the first track on Vic Chesnutt’s At The Cut, finds the oft-morbid songwriter whipping himself to the edge of the abyss, with eerie death-march strings and excoriating electric guitar from members of A Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto gnashing at his back. This is much the same band that collaborated with Chesnutt on 2007’s North Star Deserter, and this time around they find leaner, tighter chemistry between Chesnutt’s songwriting and Zion’s booming chills. Lyrically, Chesnutt has converted his psyche into something between a short-story collection and the final act of King Lear. The band’s dynamics flex toward both terrifying (“Coward,” “When The Bottom Fell Out”) and weirdly pleasant interrogations of Chesnutt and his memories. They also wisely leave Chesnutt alone with his guitar on “Bottom” and the album closer “Granny,” one of several shadowy windows into childhood scenes.
Even after seven tracks of brutal introspection and cuttingly sparse arrangements, “Flirted With You All My Life” finds a fresh trail to the emotional brink. With one shockingly simple lyrical twist, the song implodes the barriers of cynical crankiness Chesnutt so often sets up. It’s at once among his sweetest and most crushing songs. Chesnutt put out his first solo album 19 years ago, yet At The Cut’s jarringly personal songs hit new peaks by offering, as he sings on “It Is What It Is,” “curt clues to my essence.”